A piece of PNG

GRASS SKIRTS

Paradise - - In Paradise | Contents - BY JOHN BROOKS­BANK

WHAT ARE THEY?

Grass skirts are the tra­di­tional form of dress for women in many parts of Pa­pua New Guinea. They are not, as the names sug­gests, usu­ally made from grass, and are bet­ter de­scribed as fi­bre skirts.

WHERE ARE THEY MADE ?

Be­cause they are an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of tra­di­tional dress in many ar­eas, grass skirts are still made all over the coun­try, par­tic­u­larly in coastal vil­lages. The size, shape, de­sign and colour vary from vil­lage to vil­lage, re­flect­ing dif­fer­ent cul­tures.

WHO MAKES THEM?

They are usu­ally made by both the men and women of the vil­lage. In ar­eas where there are a lot of man­groves, suit­able for sago and nipa palm, skirts are pro­duced by vil­lagers in large num­bers for trade with ar­eas lack­ing this re­source.

HOW ARE THEY MADE ?

They are made from var­i­ous plant ma­te­ri­als found in the lo­cal area, such as the leaves of sago palm, nipa palm, ba­nana and pan­danus. The Roro, Waima, Mekeo and Motu peo­ple of Cen­tral Province, for ex­am­ple, use sago fi­bres to make skirts, some­times with an un­der­skirt of nipa palm fi­bre. The fi­bres come from the cen­tral ‘spear’ of un­opened leaves when a palm is cut down. These leaflets are de-ribbed and split into strands of the de­sired width be­fore be­ing dried and dyed ready for as­sem­bly into a skirt.

HOW ARE THEY DEC­O­RATED ?

Some skirts are util­i­tar­ian and plain, whereas others are coloured with nat­u­ral dyes. The dis­tinc­tive lo­cal styles – dif­fer­en­ti­ated by de­sign, length, colour­ing and dec­o­ra­tion – make them recog­nis­able as com­ing from a par­tic­u­lar area or re­gion. For ex­am­ple, grass skirts in the Cen­tral Province are be­low the knee, of­ten with zigzag designs dyed red and green, or per­haps ver­ti­cal stripes of colour. Some designs are spe­cific to cer­tain clans, whereas more generic designs are made for trade or sale. The dis­tinc­tive three-lay­ered skirts worn by Tro­briand women, called taku­lakola, tend to be shorter than skirts from other parts of Milne Bay. In Manus, women’s dress con­sists of two wo­ven sago fi­bre aprons of un­equal length that hang front and back, held to­gether with a strong fi­bre gir­dle.

HOW WERE THEY USED TRA­DI­TION­ALLY?

Plain skirts were worn by vil­lage women as ev­ery­day dress but, very much like Western cul­tures, the best grass skirts were kept for danc­ing at special oc­ca­sions such as sing-sings, marriage, and bride price cer­e­monies. Grass skirts were best seen dur­ing tra­di­tional dance dis­plays. A girl’s tran­si­tion through the so­cial sta­tuses of pu­berty, readi­ness for marriage, marriage, mourn­ing and wid­ow­hood might each be marked with re­ceipt of a new skirt. When not in use, grass skirts were rolled up and kept some­where dry, such as in the rafters of the house. Sim­i­lar to other goods that con­sti­tuted tra­di­tional wealth, grass skirts were also used as an item of trade.

WHERE CAN GRASS SKIR TS BE BOUGHT?

They are not usu­ally sold in craft shops be­cause they can eas­ily de­te­ri­o­rate if not looked af­ter prop­erly. But keep an eye out for them for sale at fes­ti­vals.

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