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Feather cape

By the British Museum
Feather cape, probably before 1850 C.E. (Hawaiʻi), olona fibre, feather, 68.5 x 45 cm (© The Trustees of the British Museum, London)

For ceremonies and battle

The Hawaiian male nobility wore feather cloaks and capes for ceremonies and battle. Such cloaks and capes were called ‘ahu’ula, or “red garments.” Across Polynesia the color red was associated with both gods and chiefs. In the Hawaiian Islands, however, yellow feathers became equally valuable, due to their scarcity. They consisted of olonä (Touchardia latifolia) fibre netting made in straight rows, with pieces joined and cut to form the desired shape.
The manufacture of these prestigious feathered items was a highly skilled and time-consuming craft, restricted to men of high status, who observed religious practices as they worked. Each piece of netting was made separately, accompanied by the recitation of protective prayers. Such a cloak provided its important wearer with sacred protection when worn in dangerous situations.
Netting on the back of an ahu'ula cloak. Cloak (ahu'ula), 18th century, feather and fibre, 168 x 294 cm (© The Trustees of the British Museum, London)
Tiny bundles of feathers were attached to the netting in overlapping rows starting at the lower edge. The exterior of this example is covered with red feathers from the ʻiʻiwi bird (Vestiaria coccinea), yellow feathers from the ʻōʻō (Moho nobilis), and black feathers also from the ʻōʻō.
The most common color scheme for Hawaiian ceremonial feather cloaks uses a red background with yellow geometrical motifs and lower border. Yellow feathers were scarcer than red ones, so the most valuable garments were predominantly yellow. It has been estimated that the largest cloaks would be covered with nearly half a million small feathers. Cloaks were valued items, passed down the generations as heirlooms.
This small cape has a shaped neckline which would closely fit the wearer. This style of semi-circular cape is considered a later development from the trapezoidal shape. Large numbers of feathered cloaks and capes were given as gifts to the sea captains and their crews who were the earliest European visitors to Hawai'i. Some of these attractive items would then have passed into the hands of the wealthy patrons who financed their voyages. It is not known who brought this particular cape to England.
© Trustees of the British Museum
Additional resources
Stacy Kamehiro, "Empire and U.S. Art History from an Oceanic Visual Studies Perspective," Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 6, no. 1 (Spring 2020).
Stacy Kamehiro, "Featherwork in the Hawaiian Monarchy Period, c. 1820–1893," in Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Aliʻi, ed. Leah Caldeira, Christina Hellmich, Adrienne L. Kaeppler, Betty Lou Kam, and Roger G. Rose, pp. 80–105 (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press; San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in collaboration with the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Honolulu, 2015).
Stacy Kamehiro, The Arts of Kingship: Hawaiian Art and National Culture of the Kalakaua Era (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2009).
P.H. Buck, Arts and crafts of Hawaii (Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press, 1957).
S. Phelps, Art and artifacts of the Pacific (London, Hutchinson, 1976).
Essay by the British Museum

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