Agnes Terao-Guiala, a retired Maui high school teacher, recently published a new edition of her book “Hawaiian Women’s Fashions: Kapa, Cotton and Silk.” Nearly two decades in the making, the book, now a 2021 Pele Award winner, is a remarkable chronicle of the fabrics and styles of Hawaii, interwoven with stories of the islands and its people, from early Hawaiians to historic royalty to modern designers.
Numerous chapters cover information in several major sections: The Beginning, Western Contact, A New Dynasty, A New Hawaii, and Hawaii’s Fashion Industry. The result of Terao-Guiala’s researching and writing is a genuinely intriguing account.
The book enriches our understanding of Hawaii in the era prior to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, as well as in the 20th and 21st centuries. The last chapters, discussing Hawaii’s contemporary designers, show the traditional Hawaiian designs within the local and global fashion industry.
Ketra Kennedy Arcas, Kamehameha Schools Maui librarian, said in a review, “Hawaiian Women’s Fashions: Kapa, Cotton and Silk offers a unique perspective about the history of fashion in the islands. This book is a fascinating contribution to our local history and a ‘must have’ for all Hawaiian book collections.”
Terao-Guiala comes from a long-established Lahaina and Paukukalo family. As a young girl growing up on Maui, she learned to dance hula and was inspired by Hawaiian culture and traditions, especially when she received her Hawaiian name “Milani” from her hula teacher, Aunty Emma Sharpe. Later, even while teaching high school, Terao-Guiala continued to take classes about Hawaiian royalty, fabrics, native plants, language, history and culture to learn as much as she could about “all things Hawaiian.”
She loved the bright colors of the Hawaiian holoku (a woman’s long one-piece gown, usually with some fitting and a train) and marveled at how the royal women of the Hawaiian ali’i went to great lengths to keep up with the fashions of the times. The holoku also became the accepted mode of dress for the general population of Hawaiian women.
“Inspired by my love for the beautiful, fancy holoku, I began to research the origin and evolution of all Hawaiian attire,” Terao-Guiala said. “I purchased and collected over 200 Hawaiian garments, mostly the mu’umu’u (a loose-fitting, flowy dress) that was introduced to Hawaii in the mid-1800s. To show the changing time periods, I used black and white historical images from the Hawaii State Archives and the Bishop Museum, as well as photos from the collection of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts Hawaii. In addition, I amassed a large collection of books and artifacts about Hawaii.”
This beautifully crafted and illustrated book is as much about history as fashion. The subtitle, Kapa, Cotton and Silk, refers to the dominant fibers for fabric used in Hawaiian clothing. With each chapter, Terao-Guiala presents a long discussion of Hawaiian history and key personages followed by information on clothing and textiles from that era.
Beginning with the opening chapter, “Shut Up: The First Hawaiians,” she tells of the first voyagers from the Marquesas Islands arriving in the Hawaiian Islands as early as 300 AD While the men were hunting, farming, fishing or preparing food, the women were caring for the children, harvesting limu (seaweed) and shellfish from the ocean, or pounding the inner fibers of the wauke plant into kapa or bark cloth for clothing and bedding. The step-by-step detail of how this procedure, as well as that of feather work, lei-making and tattooing, was accomplished is both intriguing and educational. Historic and artistic records revealed the most obvious external change that had taken place in Hawaii with the arrival of foreign visitors and missionaries. This change included the adoption of Western clothing by the Hawaiians, a reflection of the changing culture and social structure in the islands.
Terao-Guiala explained, “The first obvious change in Hawaiian women’s fashions began with the arrival of the First Company of missionaries from New England in 1820, when the missionary wives designed and sewed the holoku. The first tourists who came to the islands had less than complimentary names for this missionary-inspired garment, calling it a sack, New England nightgown or a Mother Hubbard dress.
“Fashion is not a whim; it is history. It reflects the culture and cultural changes of the time. Fashion reveals a great deal about the attitudes of and towards women and their role in society. I wanted to show how the history of Hawaii interweaves with women’s fashions through the generations and how it played a significant role, not only in daily life, but also in high society, religion and the political scene. I included the history and numerous memorable stories of Hawaiian ali’i, including the heart-rending story of Queen Lili’uokalani and the Royal Princess of Hawaii, Princess Victoria Ka’iulani Cleghorn.”
For example, the styles worn by Queen Lili’uokalani and Princess Ka’iulani were representative of not only the era, but of the mood of the events taking place. Once imprisoned, Queen Lili’uokalani mostly wore black, as the loneliness and strain of being imprisoned had a detrimental effect on her.
“There was also clothing being worn by many of the Hawaiian Royalist women in protest of the annexation,” Terao-Guiala pointed out. “They purchased navy blue and white striped fabric that resembled the material of the prison suits worn by incarcerated Royalists. Using this fabric, the women made blue and white striped holoku with matching hats. These women wore their new prison-themed clothes in public for several days, walking around the streets of Honolulu to show their support for their husbands, brothers, friends or sweethearts who were imprisoned. Additionally, the men began to wear hatbands with ‘Aloha ‘aina’ (Love of Country) printed on them in the form of public protest.”
The persistence of the holoku and mu’umu’u into the present time mirrors the enduring respect and nostalgia felt in Hawaii for Hawaiian traditional arts and the monarchy. Presently, the holoku and holomu’u (a combination of the holoku and mu’umu’u) are worn by members of hula halau who dance hula ‘auana (modern, free-flowing hula style) or contemporary hula segments at the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival and other hula shows, competitions, and festivals.
Presently, aloha wear has become acceptable business attire, resulting in an increase in the sales of Hawaii’s fashions, which benefits the island’s garment industry. Local designers create their own fabric prints inspired by Hawaiian native plants, decorative kapa designs and traditional Hawaiian artifacts. Their uniquely printed fabrics and clothing designs have enabled Hawaiian fashions to be recognized all over the world, most recently at New York Fashion Week.
The wearing of traditional Hawaiian designs is still, to some extent, a social and political statement during this complex time of cultural diversity, and the holoku style continues to influence the fashions of Hawaii in the 21st century as well. The Hawaiian holoku of today remains a timelessly graceful and attractive garment in all of its variations.
Terao-Guiala summed up her effort: “Fashions make a statement. It tells who we are. My book has allowed me to share my research and perspectives as well as my love for fashion and the holoku. I enjoyed discovering and writing the information about the evolution of this garment. The anecdotes about the lives and clothing of the royal women show how they became the fashion leaders of the Hawaiian Kingdom and contributed to the rich history of Hawaii. This book has become the holoku of my childhood dreams.
“Today, many of Hawaii’s current fashion designers find their inspiration in traditional kapa pattern designs, bringing the traditions of the past into the present. Hawaiian women’s fashion has changed and evolved through the years from kapa to cotton and silk, and back to kapa. Returning full circle, it carries forward the traditions, beauty and spirituality of Hawaiian artistry and design into the 21st century and onto the world stage. Throughout the many years of writing this book, I received so much support and encouragement from family, friends and former students. I am very grateful for all the assistance. Mahalo nui loa.”
currently, “Hawaiian Women’s Fashions: Kapa, Cotton and Silk” is available at Maui Historical Society, Bailey House Museum, Native Intelligence, The Sugar Museum, Upcountry Farmers’ Market: Aunty Pi’ilani, and Maui Matcha in Whalers Village.