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Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i at LACMA, thedreamstress.com

There were many, many highlights to my trip to Southern California for Costume College in July/August, but one of the best was going to LACMA to see Reigning Men, and discovering that there was a major exhibition on Hawaiian featherwork as well – and we’d come just in time for the last day!

I enjoyed Reigning Men (though it definitely struggled with curatorial cohesion), but I loved Nā Hulu Ali‘i.  I’ve seen many pieces of Hawaiian featherwork in different museums, but never so many in a single exhibition.  And Hawaiian featherwork is a phenomenal craft.  The skill involved in making ‘ahu ‘ula (cloaks) and mahiole (helmets) is breathtaking.

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i at LACMA, thedreamstress.com

In Hawaiian culture, featherwork was a sign of mana (spiritual prestige) and status.  Feather cloaks, helmets, and lei were worn only by chiefs.  They were passed down from generation to generation, warriors would seize cloaks and helmets from defeated rivals, and feather items were given as gifts to convey favour.

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i at LACMA, thedreamstress.com

Cloak associated with Chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu

‘Ahu ‘ula and mahiole are made by weaving feathers on to a netting of ‘olona (which is a type of nettle, a fact that makes me ridiculously happy).

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i at LACMA, thedreamstress.com

The yellow feathers are from o’o, which as you’ll notice if you look at images of them, only have tiny little patches of yellow feathers.  One cloak could take feathers from tens of thousands of birds, which were caught, the yellow feathers plucked, and then released to re-grow more feathers.

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i at LACMA, thedreamstress.com

Red feathers came from ‘i’iwi and ‘apapane and because they were more plentiful than yellow, were less prized.  The more yellow in a cloak, the more mana, and the higher the status of the wearer.

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i at LACMA, thedreamstress.com

The importance of feathered cloaks, and the links between the birds that made them and the end result was so marked that the original latin name given to the ‘i’iwi bird was Vestiaria coccineaVestiaria meaning clothing, and coccinea meaning red.

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i at LACMA, thedreamstress.com

Lei pauku (feather lei), 18th century. Mark and Carolyn Blackburn Collection.

Captain Cook noticed Hawaiian featherwork as soon as he arrived in Hawaii, and was delighted when he was given a number of pieces of featherwork, including a cloak and helmet, by the Chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu.  The cloak and helmet were at Te Papa in Wellington until this year, when they were repatriated to Hawaii.

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i at LACMA, thedreamstress.com

Many other cloaks, helmets and were given to European visitors over the years, and made their way into museum collections over the years.  Others remained in Hawaii, and most of those are now at the Bishop Museum.

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i at LACMA, thedreamstress.com

The featherwork tradition did not stay static as the Western influence became more pronounced.  Cloaks, lei, and kahili continued to be made, and incorporated Western motifs  (note the hearts in the cloak three photos up) introduced feathers, and ‘fashionable’ silhouettes.

Cape, 1882, associated with Queen Kapi'olani.  Pheasant and chicken feathers, velvet, silk, and frogging closures.  Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

Cape, 1882, associated with Queen Kapi’olani. Pheasant and chicken feathers, velvet, silk, and frogging closures. Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

Note the statement shoulders on this cloak, typical of late 1930s fashions:

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i at LACMA, thedreamstress.com

Cape worn by Hawaiian activist Alice Kamokila Campbell, 1930s-40s. Pheasant feathers on wool with silk. Honolulu Museum of Art

More about Hawaiian featherwork:

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i at LACMA, thedreamstress.com

8 Comments

  1. Lynne says

    Admire, indeed! Aren’t they stunning? And I like that they are woven on nettle fibre, too!

  2. Stunning work indeed. I believe the Aztecs and Maya also did featherwork, but I don’t think we have surviving pieces from those cultures (or at least not large pieces in excellent condition). Thanks for the photos!

  3. Deanna says

    This is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing it. Funny, I was listening to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole when I opened this post. I wish I had known about the exhibit before it ended.

    • Ouch. That’s a rather dreadfully ironic compliment, considering that mosquitos are primarily to blame for the decline/extinction of most of the species that these items are made from!

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