A taʻovala is a Tongan dress, a mat wrapped around the waist, worn by men and women, at all formal occasions, much like the tie for men in the European and North American culture. The ta'ovala is also commonly seen among the Fijian Lau islands, a region once heavily influenced by Tongan hegemony and cultural diffusion.
According to a Tongan story, a group of Tongans once arrived by boat at the Tuʻi Tonga, but they had had a rough ride and their clothing, if any remained, was not respectable. They cut the sail of their boat (Polynesian sails are also mats) in pieces and wrapped them around. The king was so pleased by the sacrifice they had made to him of their expensive sail, that he ordered this dress to be court dress from then on. The Tongan waist-mat probably shares a common origin or inspiration as the Samoan "valatau" or "vala" waistband often donned by orators and chiefly sons ("manaia") and daughters ("taupou") on festive occasions and rituals.
Queen Salote Tupou III ordered the taʻovala to be part of the civil servants' uniform. The use of the taʻovala for men is therefore extremely common in Tonga. For women it is somewhat less common, as they prefer a kiekie to wear.
The normal taʻovala, for everyday neat wear, is a short mat, coming halfway up the thighs. It is tied with a rope (kafa, often made of coconut coir or of human hair of a deceased ancestor) wrapped around the waist. The mat worn on festive occasions, like a marriage, is much larger, and often very nicely decorated. Likewise the taʻovala for a funeral is also a huge mat, but much coarser, not decorated, and if the wearer has an inferior rank towards the deceased, the mat is old and torn. The older and more torn it is, the better. Yet all these special mats are kept as precious heirlooms.
Taʻovala are part of the koloa, the handicraft goods made by the women. Every woman can do it, and if girls did not learn it at home, it will be taught at school. More recently however some women specialise in the handicraft and sell their products on the market.
Taʻovala can be made from different materials, both natural and introduced:
- strips of pandanus leaves, usually unpainted, although sometimes black strips are used, and very sometimes the whole taʻovala is black. The strips range from coarse (15 mm or so as for funerals) to fine (a couple of millimeters, as the taʻovala loukeha, in which one is dressed to visit the king). Mats are always woven by hand. Especially the fine mats are therefore very laborious to make, take a long time to complete and are expensive. The oldest and most valuable Tongan fine mats are preserved and worn by the Tongan royal family on formal occasions.
- strips of hibiscus bast fiber, called fau. Same as the pandanus leaves, but not as coarse and as such they can be plaited in a variety of patterns, which is faster and cheaper than to weave them by hand. Most of the 'civil servants' taʻovala are made in this way.
- plastic, especially old flour bags. Not considered the real thing, but it will do in a pinch.
- ʻI.F. Helu; Critical essays: Cultural perspectives from the Southseas; 1999