All THOSE Words for Skirt? I
Bill Long 9/5/08
From Sarong to Kikoi and Many Others
When I was researching terms for desert winds, I realized that each country has its own name for their particular wind, even though one might argue that the wind is pretty much the same. A similar realization overtook me when I began to research traditional garments that people simply wrapped around themselves. However, the difference from the winds is that each of these garments, though similar in function, has distinctive histories and cultural expressions. A friend inspired me to do this task by saying that she had heard of a word she called "pereo" for such a garment, but never found it in any dictionary. Actually, her word is pareo or pareu--and it took me along the path that led to these two essays. Thanks, Kathy!
The Terms and the Basic Term
The generic term that we all know in the States for such a garment is a sarong. Few of us know that it derives from the Malay language or that it is the "Malay national garment;" we generally think it describes any sort of skirt that someone wraps around herself/imself. But when you realize that this skirt has the following names (a partial list), you want to step back and dive into the culture...if not the skirt. Here are some of the words: sarong (Malaysia and world); pareo/pareu (French Polynesia); lava lava (Samoa); sulu (Fiji); kikoi, kitenge, khanga/kanga (East Africa); kikepa (Hawaii); lamba (Madagascar), capulana (Mozambique); lungi (South Asia). One also might put the lap lap from Papua New Guinea in this list, but it consists of two flaps in front and back and so isn't technically such a garment.
I know I am leaving out some garments, from other African and Oceanic areas. I will do a mea culpa when someone from Somalia or elsewhere writes to me feeling ignored..
Beginning with the OED Terms
Having just shown the inadequacies of the OED with respect to "foreign" words (see essays on mafufunyana), I was rather expecting the OED not to have any of these words--beyond sarong, of course. But here is what they have, with the dates of the first attestation in English [it would be nice to know what year the words were included in the OED..]: pareu (1769); sarong (1834); lamba (1729); lap lap (1930); sulu (1850); kikoi (1942); kitenge (1969); lungi (1634). The only words the OED didn't have from my list were kikepa, khanga/kanga and capulana. I was impressed. Why, I thought, would the OED have most of the international terms for a wrap-around garment, and for winds off the desert, but would be quite deficient in terms describing mental illnesses and spirit power in Africa? I can't answer that now; I would rather look at skirts, so to speak.
Pareu got me started on the quest, so let's begin with it. You could always begin with a definition, but why not with a picture. Here are two Tahitian girls dressed in pareos. It looks as if you don't don a pareo without complementing it by a wreath of flowers around your head. What I liked about this picture, however, is that it introduced me to two more terms when describing the flowers worn by the women: "Or simply worn at the ear, the flower of tiare or hibiscus is the daily ornament of the vahines." A vahine is a "Tahitian woman or wife," and only graced the English language for the first time in 1950--about when Tahiti was discovered in large numbers by tourists. Paul Gauguin, who made Tahiti famous for his paintings about 110 years ago lived in the village of Mataiea in French Polynesia "with his beloved vahine Teha-amana." By the time you get over to New Zealand, the word has changed to wahine, which is a Maori woman or wife. That term entered English in the late 18th century. I think I should have "South Pacific" playing in the background. Oh, a tiare is a small, white seven-petaled flower, one of several species of Gardenia, pictured here. This web site tells you something about why the tiare is "like no other flower on the planet."
More Specifics on the Pareo/Pareu
There are sites that tell us that the pareu/pareo is now an "in" dress in the Hawaiian Islands. Hm. Maybe the reason the OED and other dictionaries I consulted didn't have kikepa, the Hawaiian version of the pareo, is that the Hawaiins themselves use the term pareo. What I didn't know until recently was the history and origins of the pareo, which is told here. Several interesting things can be mentioned. First, the clothing worn in Tahiti (French Polynesia) was at first made of leaves and bark of various trees, especially the paper mulberry. "Ulu (breadfruit) bark and paper mulberry bark were used to make a fabric called tapa."
Now, the fabric of course has to be distinguished from the Spanish and South/Central American food tapas, which, as this site tells us, are "practically anything from a chunk of tuna, cocktail oniion and an olive skewered on a long toothpick to meat with sauce served piping hot on a miniature clay dish." The word tapa, in Spanish, means "cover" or "lid," and it refers to the fact that slices of sausage or other pieces of meat were originally put on top of the glasses of wine/sherry as "lids." I didn't know that before yesterday.
But the Polynesian use of tapa (which some dialects pronounce and spell as kapa) is "a kind of unwoven cloth made from the bark of the Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera)." I love that tree, and there are a few exemplars of it on the University of Oregon campus. Two of them are near the Education Annex and 17th Street...Well, back to our history. The author says that the word pareo is often used synonymously with a sarong but, in fact, this is mistaken. "A pareo did not evolve from a sarong or vice verse..A wrap around with Indonesian designs is a sarong and a wrap with Tahitian designs is a pareo."
The women of Tahiti, before the influence of the West, wore this tied around the waist and draped to the knee. Prior to contact with our societies, Tahitian women went topless during the course of the day. But under the influence of the Western missionaries and others, the pareo began to mimic women's wear in the West. The popular garment for males is called the maro, a simple loin cloth. It consisted of a single narrow piece of tapa wrapped around the waist and between the legs. The OED also has the word maro, which it says dates back to 1769 in English usage.
Other South Pacific Wrap-Arounds
As you see, we can go on and on reagrding these things forever. Each culture has its own garments, made from native materials close at hand and carrying designs that give us a window into the culture. We in the West generally just like the aesthetic appearance of such a garment, ignoring the manufacturing process and, sometimes, the "meaning" of the garment. Let's conclude this by mentioning only one other word--sulu. The OED tells us that in Fiji it is "a length of cotton cloth wrapped around the body to form a sarong; hence a type of sarong worn by both sexes (typically from the waist to the knee by men, and to the ankle by women)." Well, we have just learned to avoid the danger of calling the pareo a kind of sarong, so let's not do so for sulu. It isn't a sarong or a malo or a pareo; it is a sulu. Here are a few words describing the sulu and related garments. Here is a picture of several Fijian women in their "rockin Sulu jambas" which can be worn to any occasion.
Let' this be only a taste of the richness that can be discovered when you take the time to learn of another land and their culture. The next essay takes us to Africa to understand their corresponding "sarongs."