A lavalava, also known as an 'ie, short for 'ie lavalava, is an article of daily clothing traditionally worn by Polynesians and other Oceanic peoples. It consists of a single rectangular cloth worn as a skirt. The term lavalava is both singular and plural in the Samoan language.
Today the fashion remains common in Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga and parts of Melanesia and Micronesia. It is worn by men and women in uses from school uniforms to business attire with a suit jacket and tie. Many people of Oceanic ethnicity wear the lavalava as an expression of cultural identity and for comfort within expatriate communities, especially in the United States (notably Hawaii, Alaska, California, Washington, and Utah), Australia, and New Zealand.
The lavalava is secured around the waist by an overhand knotting of the upper corners of the cloth; women often tuck the loose ends into the waistband, while men usually allow them to hang in front. Women generally wear ankle-length lavalava while men's wraps often extend to the knee or mid-calf depending on the activity or occasion.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Pacific Ocean, the most prestigious lavalava were made by wrapping the body in a 'ie toga with fine mats (finely woven textiles of pandanus leaves) or siapo (tapa cloth) pounded from paper mulberry or wild hibiscus bark. The Samoans also created lavalava from traditional materials such as flower petals, leaves, feathers and seashells tied to a wrap-around backing of plaited plant fibers.
Calico and loomed cotton cloth had largely replaced woven or barkcloth lavalava as articles of daily use (though ‘ie toga and siapo wraps are still used today for ceremonial and festive occasions and dance performances). Samoan men who bear the pe'a body tattoo, as well as Samoan women who bear the malu leg tattoos often roll the waistband of the lavalava or tuck in the sides and rear portion(s) of the lavalava to expose their tattoo during dance performances or ceremonial functions (such as 'ava ceremonies), a style referred to as agini.
Specially tailored linen lavalava which extend mid-calf, often with pockets and ties/buckles, are worn by men at special occasions or to church; these are always solid colors (in contrast to the bright patterns of everyday lava-lava) and are known as sulu (Fijian), 'ie faitaga (Samoan), or tupenu (Tongan). Similar ankle-length skirts form the lower half of the two-piece formal dress worn by Samoan and Tongan women (called puletasi and puletaha, respectively). On special occasions the Tongan tupenu and puletaha are usually associated with a tapa cloth or waist-mat called ta'ovala and some Samoans still wear a tapa cloth vala sash in similar fashion (though the vala is generally restricted to ceremonial/festive regalia of orators or people acting/dressing as taupou maidens and manaia beaus). The formal, tailored linen lavalava styles of Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji originated with the Fijian noble Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna who introduced the buckled sulu to Fiji in 1920 following his military service and university education in Europe.
Related names and garments
In English, such garments are generically called sarong, but that word is actually Malay, whereas lavalava is Samoan, being short for ʻie lavalava (cloth that wraps around). Another common name for the Polynesian variety is pāreu (usually spelled pareo), which is the Tahitian name. In New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna, lavalava are called "manou". A similar simple kind of clothing is the lap-lap worn in Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific, which is completely open at both sides.