The familiar Hawaiian fashion that we know as the mu‘umu‘u began life as an undergarment.
When Christian missionaries arrived in Hawai‘i in 1820, female chiefs were enamored of the women’s empire-waist dresses, and put the missionary ladies to work stitching up gowns from fabric the Hawaiians had acquired through sandalwood trading. Adapting their pattern to a loose garment for the Hawaiians’ generous figures, the seamstresses created a new design that would be known as a holoku—yards of fabric attached to a yoke, with a high neck and long sleeves.
Underneath the holoku, women wore a shorter, simple slip called a mu‘umu‘u (cut off, shortened). Also worn for sleeping or swimming, the mu‘umu‘u stayed out of public view until the 1940s, when it appeared in newly popular bright Hawaiian prints.
Today we think of the holoku as a long, fitted dress with a train, worn by hula dancers and elegant ladies at formal Hawaiian events. It would have looked at home in King Kalakaua’s court.
Few outside of Hawai‘i are aware of the holoku. But what we now call the mu‘umu‘u—any loose Hawaiian-print dress hanging from the shoulders—has come a long way since its genesis as underwear and is now known around the world.