AP®︎/College Art History
By the British Museum
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.
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
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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- It is very colorful way were the men the only ones to wear it(9 votes)
- It is not true that women were not allowed to wear ʻahuʻula; a relatively well known example of a woman wearing one would be Nahiʻenaʻena, a daughter of Kamehameha paiʻea.(1 vote)
- In the first paragraph it says the Hawaii men wore the feathered cloaks, were women aloud if not why?(4 votes)
- The capes were a sacred garment worn by chiefs, not just any male or female could wear it. The patterns on the cape where each associated with a particular lineage and contained the owning family's "mana" or supernatural power. The cape also functioned to frighten its viewers and protect the chief (spiritually and physically).(4 votes)
- Did they harm the bird population when they made these cloaks? They look so beautiful and dense in feathers, it seems that it would take a lot of birds to make one.(2 votes)
- I found this here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%CA%BBAhu_%CA%BBula
The cloaks were constructed using a woven netting decorated with feathers obtained from local birds. The plant used to make the netting is Touchardia latifolia, a member of the nettle family.
The coloring was achieved using different types of feathers. Black and yellow came from four species of bird called ʻōʻōs. All species had become extinct by 1987, with the probable cause being disease. Black feathers were also sourced from the two species of mamo, which are also now both extinct. The distinctive red feathers came from the ʻIʻiwi and the ʻApapane. Both species can still be found in Hawaii, but in much reduced numbers. Although birds were exploited for their feathers, the effect on the population is thought to be minimal. The birds are said to have not been killed but, rather, caught by specialist bird catchers, a few feathers harvested, and the birds then released.
Hundreds of thousands of feathers were required for each cloak. A small bundle of feathers was gathered and tied into the netting. Bundles were tied in close proximity to form a uniform covering of the surface of the cloak.(2 votes)
- In the essay on Easter Island Moai, some moai were placed on an "ahu" or stone platform. In this essay the capes were called 'ahu'ula. Wikipedia also says "ahu" is a Hawaiian altar. Tell me more about the linguistic connection between "ahu" in Rapa Nui and Hawaii.(2 votes)
- The peoples of Haiai'i and Rapa Nui are both Polynesian. It's no surprise that there are similarities in their languages.(2 votes)
- Did Khan Academy approach the Bishop Museum (http://www.bishopmuseum.org/) in Honolulu, Hawaii for assistance with this or other Polynesian art articles?(2 votes)
- Was there any spiritual significance for the cape?(2 votes)
- The 'Ahu 'Ula acted as sort of an 'invisiblility cloak' for the wearer. This means that their mana would be guarded from any threats (it also possess tapu).(1 vote)
- what is the style of this piece(1 vote)
- Pacific? There wouldn't be a specific 'style' but if you're referring to how to categorize it I would say Pacific.(1 vote)
- Did the Hawaiian people had a good relationship with the sea captains and their conquerors?(1 vote)
- what are works of art related to this(1 vote)