Mother Hubbard dress

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Tahitian girls in their unadorned "grandmother's dresses" between 1880 and 1889.

A Mother Hubbard dress is a long, wide, loose-fitting gown with long sleeves and a high neck. Intended to cover as much skin as possible, it was introduced by missionaries in Polynesia to "civilise" those whom they considered half-naked savages.

Although this Victorian remnant has disappeared elsewhere in the world, it is still worn by Pacific women, who have altered it into a brighter and cooler garment, using cotton sheets, often printed in brightly coloured floral patterns.

Names and designs vary. In Hawaii, it is called holokū.[1] There, a derivative, the muumuu, is highly similar, but without the yoke and train, and therefore even easier to make.[2] In Tahiti, the name was ʻahu tua (empire dress, in a sense of colonial empire); now, ʻahu māmā rūʻau (grandmother's dress) is used. In Samoa and Tonga, the design has taken on a two-piece form, with classic mother hubbard blouses (long, wide, loose-fitting with puffy sleeves) over ankle-length skirts, called "puletasi" and "puletaha," respectively. In Marshallese, the name is wau ([ɒ̯ɒ͡ɑɑ̯u̯uu̯]), from the name of the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The missionaries who introduced it in the Marshall Islands came from Oʻahu.[3] In New Caledonia, these dresses are referred to as robes missions (Mission Dresses). New Caledonian women wear these dresses when playing their distinctive style of cricket.[citation needed] In Papua New Guinea, the form of dress is known as meri blaus, which in Tok Pisin means women's blouse. It is considered formal local attire. In the 1960s and 1970s many women in Tarawa, Kiribati and a few i-matang women wore a garment which was referred to as a Mother Hubbard. Whilst the lower half of the body was covered with a wrap-around (lavalava) or a skirt, the top half was worn a very loose low-necked blouse short enough to expose a band of flesh at the waist. The latter was usually worn without underclothes.

In India and much of South Asia, these dresses are referred to as Housecoats. Indian women wear these dresses as a convenient apparel at home, particularly around only the family members when they are not expecting company.[citation needed]

The author W. Somerset Maugham refers to this dress many times in his novels and short stories about the Pacific. It is also referenced by John Steinbeck in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. It is also referred to in the lyrics of 1953 musical fantasy filmThe 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T a feature film written by Theodor Seuss Geisel Dr. Seuss.


  1. ^ The Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary with a Concise Hawaiian Grammar by Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Elbert, and Esther T. Mookini (1975), p 30. ISBN 0-8248-0307-8
  2. ^ The Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary with a Concise Hawaiian Grammar by Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Elbert, and Esther T. Mookini (1975), p 111. ISBN 0-8248-0307-8
  3. ^ Marshallese-English Dictionary: wau