4 Traditional Fijian Chief’s Costumes

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4-TRADITIONAL-FIJIAN-CHIEFS-COSTUMES 4 Traditional Fijian Chief’s Costumes

In the following article, we are going to dip our toe into the traditional attire of the Chiefs and the Fijian community during the nineteenth century, with the advent of Christianity and westernization bringing many changes to the traditional way of life, local skills, and the cultural significance of the attire worn. We discover how the clothing evolved throughout the life of the individual with the addition of various ornaments, tattoos, and color schemes, telling the journey and status of that person and becoming an external marker understood by Fijians across the islands.

Typical traditional attire for men


Typical traditional attire for men
Typical traditional attire for men, and two types of Masi Cloth | Image: Supplied

For Men in the nineteenth century, the most common article of clothing for Fijian men was the malo, or masi very similar to a male loincloth in appearance.   Men were entitled to wear the malo after they had reached puberty, coming of age, and/or after circumcision had occurred.   A strip of plain white barkcloth is wound around the waist and passed between the legs and knotted in front, with the length of the train being a measure of rank and chiefly the status of the individual. (Image above)

What is Masi, and how is it made?


Masi making process and tools
Image Left – Community The Masi process is a communal activity carried out by women of the village.  Image Top Right – Ike, This relatively slender, flattened, cylindrical beater is composed of a single piece of dense, heavy hardwood, with a handle at one end, and an elongated, rounded head at the other.  Image Bottom Right – Tapa / Barkcloth Beater (Ike Ni Masi). Eastern Fiji | Image: Supplied

Masi is a piece of fabric (cloth) made from the bark of the Mulberry Tree,  used for clothing and ceremonial attire across Fiji and the pacific islands. (Image above)

Fun Fact 1: This 6-step process below breaks down the process involved in making a single piece of Masi, this activity is a communal activity carried out by women of the village (Featured video)

  • Peeling off the bark of the mulberry tree (Broussenetia papyrifera) and separating its inner white bark;
  • Stripped and soaked in seawater to soften (normally left to soak for several days to a week)
  • The tapa is then beaten on a wooden anvil using a mallet known as ‘ike’ atop a strong board from the vesi hardwood known as ‘dutua’.  The rhythmic beating or ‘samu masi’ allows the soft bark to stretch delicately without tearing.
  • The end result is a beautiful white sheet that is about 12 feet long by 2 feet wide. This standard measurement of a masi is known as ‘lalaga’.
  • Depending on the size required, pieces of these sheets are glued together to form a lalaga lima (i.e. 5 widths of 12 x 2 joined together) The glue that binds the individual pieces is from the arrowroot or ‘yabia’ in Fijian.  (Naulumatua, 2021)
  • The skills and knowledge of masi- forming techniques, and their tools the ‘ike and dutua’ have been known to be passed down from generation to generation through the women’s side of the family.  with the patina gained through the action of time and use, the lke develops a greater cultural significance within the family and community over time.
Video: Fiji Airways Masi Story – Learn how Fijian Masi artist Makereta Matemosi helped to design the new look of Fiji Airways.

Typical traditional attire for women


Fijian skirt liku, and tattooing tools
Watercolor of a Fijian woman wearing a liku se droka, a necklace, and several armlets, which is the standard body adornment depicted in the nineteenth century | Image: Supplied

For Women – During the nineteenth century, fiber skirts known as ‘Liku’ (made of vegetable fiber, most commonly the bast of the vau (beach hibiscus, Hibiscus tiliaceus)), were worn by indigenous Fijian women, as part of their distinguishing dress.  When a young woman reached puberty, she was would have been dressed in her first proper Liku, covering her genital area, and sometimes the hips and upper thighs were tattooed. Female tattoos (veiqia) were applied by female specialists using small adzes with blades of thorns, turtle shells, or bone dipped into a black pigment. (LACMA, 2019), prior to this before the age of puberty, they would have worn a small ‘liku ni gone'(child’s Liku), or worn nothing.

This traditional ‘Liku’ ceremony started a process to adulthood, that continued through the personal life of the individual,  during this passage of the woman’s life she wore more distinctive Liku and body adornments that indicated the stage of life she had reached, and the experiences she has had, building a deeper cultural link between the individual with the clothing and decorative ornaments.  The Liku were also external markers readily understood by Fijians – indicating the wearer was tattooed, (un)married, a mother, or of high status.

Qato and Vesa
Left – Qato (bracelets), Right – Vesa (armbands and legbands) | Image: Supplied

Both sexes often supplemented their dress with various ornaments, such as qato (bracelets), vesa (armbands and legbands), and itaube (necklaces).  These Traditional modes of dress are no longer seen in everyday use but survive in modified form in men’s dress for meke (dances) and important ceremonies such as the veibuli (installation of a chief) below are a few examples of chiefs’ attire worn during the 19th Century.

A chief in war dress


Example of Fijian War Dress
Example of Fijian War Dress | Image: Supplied

This chief wears a turban (ivauvau) of very fine white barkcloth and a necklace of carved ivory (wasekaseka), with a sash (iwabale) of white barkcloth over his right shoulder.  His kilt is made of the shiny black fibrous roots of the waloa. Around his upper arms and calves he wears ornaments (vesa) of bundles of black threads with small white beads. He is armed with a distinctively-shaped culacula club, which is also an insignia of rank.

A chief in presentation dress


An example of a chief in presentation dress
An example of a chief in presentation dress | Image: Supplied

The “costume” worn by this chief of Nadrau, in the central highlands of Viti Levu, is in a fact a large quantity of plain white barkcloth which he wears only temporarily as a means of formally presenting it at a solevu (ceremonial exchange of valuable property). After the formal presentation in front of the assembled recipients, the cloth is untied and unwound and handed over to them. He also wears on his arms a pair of white qato (shell armbands).

A chief in formal dress


An example of a Chief in formal dress
An example of a Chief in formal dress | Image: Supplied

This chief wears the Tongan-influenced dress that was in vogue in parts of coastal Eastern Fiji, where Tongan influence was strongest in the mid-nineteenth century. It was commonly worn by Cakobau, the leading chief of Eastern Fiji, after his conversion to Christianity. The main component is a single large sheet of gatu ni Toga (Tongan barkcloth) extending from the waist to the ankles, with plain white barkcloth folded or twisted and wound around the waist to help hold it in position.

A highland chief in war dress


An example of a highland chief in war dress
An example of a highland chief in war dress | Image: Supplied

This chief is from Nasaucoko, in the central highlands of Viti Levu. His chiefly standing is confirmed by the long train of white barkcloth with fringed edges, originating from a large bow at the small of his back, and also the relatively long “apron” of barkcloth at the front. The blackening of part of his face and forehead, as well as the wearing of a belt of barkcloth high up, around the lower ribs, indicate that he is about to enter battle. The club he carries is a vunikau (rootstock club), He also wears a batinivuaka (boar’s tusk pendant) around the neck, a pair of qato (shell armbands) just above the elbow, and vesa (legbands) of fern leaves just below the knees.


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