The History of the Pā‘ū (sarong) in Hawaii

April 18, 2022

The History of the Pā‘ū (sarong) in Hawaii

Simple, long straight pieces of cloth wrapped around the waist have been around in Hawaii for a very long time. These colorful adornments are a staple to anyone seeking sunshine and solace in paradise. Known as the sarong, or pā‘ū, these diverse and popular garments are often mistakenly credited to originating in Malaysia, but the truth is, they are far older than that.

The sarong is worn during a large variety of occasions. These can be for comfort or ceremony, and often carry some form of cultural identity. In some cultures, only the men wear the ancient cloth, while in others, both women and children wear sarongs while men do not.  For example, in Bali and Tahiti, the sarong is a traditional dress worn by men and is donned during many cultural dances. In western cultures, the sarong is considered beachwear, and worn almost exclusively by women.  

Thanks to Arab traders, the use of this simple piece of fabric was thought to have expanded around the world sometime around the 1300s. The sarong is still commonly found in the Arab peninsula, a staple of the Muslim faith. Called pakome of Thailand, the lava lava of Samoa, the kain of Indonesia, and the canga of Brazil, it was early Tahitians that brought the garment to Hawaii.

Sarongs first became popular in the west around the 1940s, worn as beach attire by actress Dorothy Lamour. She was known for her portrayals of many island heroines wearing tropical prints. In the 1980s, the popularity was revitalized in longer versions than those seen nearly 40 years prior. Since then, the popularity of the dress hasn’t really declined. 

Today the sarong is still seen all over the world. However, the frequency of the garment tends to increase wherever there is sand and ocean, (and in Hawaii, we have plenty of that combination). Hilo Hattie has a large selection of this historic garment, with all the vibrant and beautiful prints one would expect from the vibrant and beautiful culture in Hawaii.