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lundi 19 août 2013

The Polynesian pareo

A clothing symbol for Tahiti and its islands

Just as the blue lagoon or the beautiful vahine, the pareo is inseparable from the Polynesian dream…

Like mana, taboo and some other terms from the Polynesian language, pareo went around the earth. This magic world, reminiscent of Tahiti and its vahine, is now part of the World Heritage. In French Polynesia, it is beyond the modes, beyond the genders and social classes. The pareo is beyond time, simply.

Pareo on market of Papeete in Tahiti
The pareo is the garment in its simplest and purest expression.

From ancestral grass skirt to modern pareo
Polynesian’s loincloths, before Western people’s arrival, were made of tapa, a vegetable fiber derived from the bark of certain trees or shrubs, softened by soaking and by cold-hammering and used as a fabric.

These ancient pareo were decorated with geometric figures and floral motifs, freehand or by using woodcuts matrixes. Natural pigments originate from colored clays or plant extracts.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the European cottonades have immediately marveled the Polynesians and reflected modish tastes. It should be noted that at the same time, in Polynesia, the home-made tapa was prohibited by Westerners.

A couple wearing pareo, above its street clothes
Today, a pareo is a lightweight fabric coupon of about 1.80m / 1.10m.
Designs and colors quickly symbolized the archipelago which had adopted them. But beware: if the flowers came from Hawaiian shirts, the pareo is no doubt Tahitian.

Pareo and globalization
The fame of pareo goes far beyond the borders of French Polynesia: it’s present in the South Pacific, from Fiji Islands to Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

In the wake of globalization, local artisans are copied by manufacturers of highly industrialized countries in the field of textiles. This phenomenon tends to standardize the production, much to the distress of the tourists cruise, sailing from Fiji to Tahiti, who must make do with the same models… One variant: the price!

A man wearing pareo for the Heiva in Tahiti
Thus, the same pareo, usually made in Bali, is sold in markets there up to 15 times cheaper than in Papeete market of Tahiti: transport costs, taxes and wage level require…

Pareo, trendy or beyond the modes?
Make no mistake: if the pareo is not pants or a dress or a skirt or even a loincloth, it’s more than that. Indeed, it performs all these functions at once. It folds to the desire of the one who wears it.

Pareo fits all desires and all situations
Much more than a garment, it serves as a beach mat, wall hangings and bedspreads at home, car seat covers and many other things…

Anglers of chevrettes (shrimpers) in fresh water streams tighten it to the waist and use it as a dip net. On weekends, the roads are lined with pareo banners tied outside the fare to indicate that the feast or any other event is there.

Carrier of fruit and vegetable in pareo at Tahiti
Up to its last few days in the hands of vahine, the pareo, cut into squares, is used to press the coconut pulp and extract the milk.

All the splendor of the fenua, the Polynesian earth, is represented on this wonderful garment: bright flowers, sparkling fishes, mountains and lagoons of the Polynesian islands. They display tattoo designs, as well as maps of the islands and atolls with names of heavenly dreams.

Whatever the time, the pareo is always in fashion. From one to the other, they are adorned with fringes, embroidery, enriched with sequins and tinkling with every movement..

Wear a pareo: an art
The pareo is unisex.

The men used to tie it like shorts that allow them to swim or climb coconut trees to seek the precious nuts.

The pareo is pretty or sexy in Tahiti?
Women suit pareo at all times of the day and even when the cool evening arises.

There are multiples ways to get drape. Many books are devoted to this delicate operation.

The pareo may be tight around the waist, draped and knotted around the neck, bare back, fastened on one shoulder and ending as a long dress. The coquetry and ingenuity are endless.

The art of wearing pareo in all its forms
But beware: it’s tied without loop, without pins, no system of any kind. It is tight and adjusted according to the movements during the day. It’s sorely tested when night comes and the whole energy is devoted to party and to its devilish tamure.

In French Polynesia, there is not one house, not a person who has in one’s wardrobe some pareo as an integral part of the lifestyle. 

Artists and pareo
Paintings, photographs, postcards put it always in the spotlight as it is present in the Polynesian daily, evocative of comfort and well-being.

Vahine wearing pareo by Gauguin
Whether it is Pierre Loti for literature or Paul Gauguin for painting, many artists have described or painted pareo, that it’s intertwined it deeply with the myth of vahine
An article of Richard Lévy-Bossi
Translated from French by Monak

To visit one of the last pareo factories in Tahiti: 

Glossary :
Chevrette: freshwater shrimp
Fare: Polynesian house
Heiva: annual festival celebrated in July
Tamure: Tahitian dance
Tapa: plant fiber fabrics
Vahine: woman

All rights reserved to Richard Lévy-Bossi and Julien Gué (for photos). Ask permission of the copyright holder prior for reproduction of text or images on the internet or any other medium.

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