Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Focus On: Polynesian Patterns

by Sherri, SewBettyAndDot

Aloha! When you think about a midcentury vacation to Hawaii, what comes to mind? Being greeted at the airport with a lei; watching the Kodak hula show in Honolulu; sipping a mai tai as you watch the sun set; men in aloha shirts; and perhaps relaxing in a muumuu? This is, of course, a somewhat stereotypical picture of a Hawaiian interlude, but many many Kodachrome slides from the 1960s will bear out the fact that these things were indeed part of many people's experience. 
Vintage postcard for the Kodak Hula Show, Waikiki (via Pinterest).

This blog post is primarily about the Hawaiian companies that produced Polynesian patterns (or variations thereof), but no discussion of Hawaiian clothing can be had without a brief overview of the muumuu (or muu muu, or mu'uma'mu). However you spell it, it is the iconic garment many associate with Hawaii--or if not Hawaii, a 1960s pool party or backyard "luau" somewhere in America. 

When Christian missionaries arrived in the Hawaiian Islands around the 1820s, they found that the people who lived there dressed for comfort in the warm and humid climate, which meant that they were not very covered up. Men wore a malo (loincloth), while women wore a skirt (pa`u); these were usually made of kapa, a stiff barkcloth made from a number of different sorts of plant fibers. Women and men generally did not wear anything above the waist (sometimes they did wear a rectangular shawl (kihei), which was worn over one shoulder. Because nudity was not acceptable to the missionaries, women were given long and loose-fitting garments: these were called holoku and were often made of homespun or calico. 

The garment worn underneath this long dress, as a sort of shift or chemise, was the muumuu, typically knee length. Over time, the muumuu became the long garment we know today, and various other style elements have been added (trains, drapes, ruffles). Japanese immigrants brought fabric used to make kimono--often printed with flowers or other natural motifs in bright colors--and the holoku/muumuu evolved from a drab shapeless dress to a flowing relaxed garment in attractive colors. Today, the term holoku is still used for more formal evening garments, while muumuus are for daytime. Muumuus most often have a defined yoke from which the rest of the garment flows. 
Women wearing holuku, early 20th century; Woman in holuku with ukulele, ca. 1900; a group of non-Hawaiian ladies in their muumuus. (photos 1 and 2 courtesy hawaiiantimemachine.blogspot.com; photo 3 via Pinterest)

After Hawaii gained statehood in 1959 and with the advent of transoceanic air travel in the early 1960s, people were able to fly to the islands and experience all of the islands' culture, cuisine, and traditions for themselves. Simultaneously, the American postwar leisure class developed a taste for the "exotic," and tiki culture exploded: bars such as Trader Vic's and the Tonga Room, "exotica" music by musicians such as Martin Denny and Les Baxter, and the cool and comfy muumuu could be found even in middle America. If you couldn't travel to Oahu and buy a muumuu there, you could go to the fabric shop and buy a pattern by Polynesian Patterns, Patterns Pacifica, Pauloa, or Kekahi to make your own. (While the other major pattern companies also produced muumuu patterns, these four companies were all based in Hawaii.)

Of course, these pattern companies had to expand their offerings beyond the traditional muumuu, so you can find also find shifts, cheongsams, lounging pajamas, jumpsuits, and bikinis. Polynesian Patterns, which were produced in the 1960s and 1970s, gave many of their garments Hawaiian names such as Alii, Kealoha, Waikiki, Kahiko, and Ihilani. The Vintage Pattern Wiki lists 50 separate Polynesian Pattern patterns; most of the garments are for women, but they did make a few for girls and I've found one to make men's swim trunks. Below are some lovely Polynesian offerings from the Pattern Patter team on Etsy.
Top row, left to right: Polynesian 121: VintageNeedleFinds

Patterns Pacifica also produced patterns for leisurewear during the 1970s and 1980s--look for the distinctive pink-and-white packages! Their designs often deviated a bit from the more "traditional" Hawaiian designs. The Vintage Pattern Wiki lists 55 Patterns Pacifica designs.

Top row, left to right: Patterns Pacifica 3006: CloesCloset

Pauloa and Kekahi are two other Hawaiian brands (I believe the same company, as their office share the same address). These are much more scarce. In addition, Alfred Shaheen (who was primarily a fabric designer) produced several "Hawaiian" patterns. 

Which of these patterns would you say "aloha" to? Tell us in the comments!


  1. Great article Sherri, I learned a lot!

  2. Wonderful insight into Hawaiian patterns, I am in love with the comfort and most of the styles!

  3. fascinating history of this fashionable item - never goes out of style!

  4. I lived in Hawaii for 16 years. Mu'u Mu'us are worn by native Hawaiian women and bank tellers on Fridays! You did a great job researching the history of Hawaii's history with the Missionaries.
    I have a piece of Alfred Shaheen fabric in my collection. :) Thanks for the educational read Sherri!!

  5. Can I just say, "I need all of these!" Too bad it's always too cold in Monterey for summer clothing. :(

  6. What a great post. There was a lot of great information. I had wondered about the Polynesian Patterns. I have come across a few but didn't have a clue. Also loved the information about how muumuu's came to be.

  7. Wonderful and informative article - thanks Sherri! I'm loving that jumpsuit Polynesian 211.

  8. What a fun and interesting article!! Thank you :)

  9. A well researched article as always, Sherri !
    Now I know how to spell MuuMuu... well sort of !

  10. My favoites (to say Aloha to) are Polynesian #121 from Vintage Needle Finds and #183 from Find Crafty Patterns. I really like the gather cloth at the back like a Goddess!