By Jan TenBruggencate
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.