Holokū and muʻu

By Jan TenBruggencate

An oil painting by Hubert Vos of his wife Kaikilani, done in the gardens of her Nawiliwili home in 1900. The painting was donated in 1997 to the Kaua‘i Historical Society, where it hangs in the entryway.

An oil painting by Hubert Vos of his wife Kaikilani, done in the gardens of her Nawiliwili home in 1900. The painting was donated in 1997 to the Kaua‘i Historical Society, where it hangs in the entryway.

Words have meaning, but meanings can change over time — even when they’re the names of common items — like pieces of clothing.

A couple of Hawaiian words that can cause some confusion are the classic dresses of Hawai‘i, the mu‘umu‘u and the holokū, each of which has referred to a more formal garment over time.

I’ve wondered where you draw the line between the two.

I was chatting with friend Beryl Blaich on the subject. A holokū, she said, is a fitted dress with a train, a longer portion in back that trails behind the wearer. Suzanne Kashiwaeda said a holokū will often have decorative puffed shoulders or sleeves.

The Pukui-Elbert Hawaiian Dictionary describes the holokū as “a loose, seamed dress with a yoke and usually a train, patterned after the Mother Hubbards of the missionaries.” The yoke is that shaped piece of a garment that is fitted around the neck and shoulders, and which allows the rest of the garment to hang better. Like an early holokū , a Mother Hubbard tended to cover as much skin as possible — from a high neck to long sleeves and a length that covered the ankle, only the face and hands were visible.

A mu‘u, or mu‘umu‘u, by contrast, is and was a simpler garment — not so fitted, although some are, and shorter, generally. And early mu`u were sewn without yokes.

Generally, the holokū is a more formal garment, and the mu‘u a more casual one.

In early Hawai`i, neither women nor men wore excessive clothing, and early renderings from pre-missionary days suggest both genders were often both topless and bare-legged. It’s commonly argued that prudish missionaries encouraged Hawaiians to cover up, men in long-sleeved shirts and trousers, and women in attire that covered all but face and hands.

The missionary modesty may have been a factor, but there’s another story.

“I’ve heard that the early Hawaiian women sought out the mu`umu`u for the bright colors,” said Blaich.

And the differences a century and a half ago between the two garments may have been different as well. The 1865 Dictionary of the Hawaiian Language, by Lorrin Andrews, defines a holoku (the book did not use diacritical marks) as “a long flowing garment.” But it describes the muu-muu as “a shift or undergarment worn by females.”

So, the mu‘u seems to have gained a little pretense over time. From an undergarment, it seems to have evolved into a simple outergarment, and in many cases, a pretty fancy outer garment, often primarily differentiated from the holokū by its length.

While a holokū flowed, its bottom touching the ground, the mu`u was absolutely shorter. In fact, an alternative meaning for mu‘umu‘u, both in the 1865 dictionary and today, is cut-off or shortened. And despite what your local dress shop tells you about a fancy, expensive mu`umu`u with a frilly neckline, the Pukui-Elbert dictionary still calls it “a woman’s underslip or chemise; a loose gown, so called because formerly the yoke was omitted.”

  • Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.

 

By | 2016-11-10T05:40:19+00:00 October 8th, 2016|0 Comments

About the Author:

Léo Azambuja, editor of For Kaua‘i, has won multiple journalism awards in the state of Hawai‘i, including investigative and enterprise reporting, spot news and feature writing, photojournalism and online reporting.

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