A piece of PNG
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.