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The Polynesian Print: Origins of the Pareu

Little is known of the origin of the printed cloth used for the wrap-around garment of the Polynesian Islands, the pareu, even though the readily-identified printed patterns have become signature motifs for the region. Dale Hope, author of "The Aloha Shirt" initially posed the question whether these patterns may have come from Manchester, and this was the start of a long research journey gathering images, texts and artefacts. While Lancashire prints were traded in the South Seas from early Victorian whaling days, it appears likely that the Polynesian print was not evolved until around 1870. The large-scale white patterns on single-colour grounds may have come about due to technical factors involving both pentagraph engraving and lead-plate printing. But the reception of these patterns depended on Polynesian culture as much as global traders. This research is tracing the complex interplay of design, merchanting, and culture in late-nineteenth and early twentieth century Polynesia. One objective is to publish a co-authored book on the subject with Dale Hope, known for his work on the Hawaiian shirt.

Tahitians wearing imported pareu cloth. Detail of photo by Colonel Stuart Wortley, 1880Tahitians wearing imported pareu cloth. Detail of photo by Colonel Stuart Wortley, 1880