The pāreu or pareo (see below) is the Cook Islands and Tahitian word for a wraparound skirt. Originally it was used only to refer to women's skirts, as men wore a loincloth, called a maro. Nowadays the term is applied to any piece of cloth worn wrapped around the body, worn by males or females. It is related to the Malay sarong, Sāmoan lavalava, Tongan tupenu and other such garments of the Pacific Islands such as the islands of Hawaiʻi, Marquesas, Aotearoa, and Fiji.
In contemporary Tahitian the right word is pāreu (singular: te pāreu, plural: te mau pāreu), with the pronunciation of the word with a long a (hold the sound for two beats rather than just one) and the e and u pronounced separately, rather than slurred into a diphthong. It is not clear where the variant pareo comes from. It might be an old dialectic variant or an early explorers' misinterpretation. But both terms were already used in the 19th century (the Dutch geographic magazine De Aarde en haar Volken of 1887 had a few Southseas articles, some of them using pāreu, others pareo). Nowadays, however, pareo can be considered as the English-language form of the word (plural pareos), much less likely subject to mispronunciation.
The Tahitian pāreu are among the most colourful and bright of the Pacific. Originally flower patterns, the hibiscus flowers in particular, or traditional tapa patterns, were printed in bright colours on a cotton sheet of about 90 or 120 cm wide and 180 cm long. Nowadays they are also made in Tahiti itself and dye painting with varying colours is popular as well.
A pāreu can be worn in many ways. Women will usually wrap it around their upper body, covering it from breasts to above the knees. Either they rely on their breasts for it not to slide down, or they may wrap a corner around their shoulder or their neck. In more traditional surroundings the covering of the upper body is less important, but the covering of the thighs is. Then it is worn as a longer skirt. Men wear it as a short skirt, or may even make shorts out of it, especially when fishing or working in the bush where freedom of movement of the legs is needed. But during quiet, cooler nights at home, they may wear it as a long skirt too.
The ends of the pāreu are normally just tucked in, kept in place by friction only. No pins or other means are used. Only when as dress worn around the neck or shoulders, ends are knotted together. When it comes loose a few times per day, the wearer will just pull it tight again or rewrap him/herself. Nevertheless, when a lot of movement occurs, at heavy work or dancing for example, wearing a belt over it around the waist is common too. The ease of undoing it is not a burden, but rather a blessing. A woman (or man) may start her daily work on a colder morning wearing her pāreu as a long skirt and with a shirt. When it comes loose, the day may have warmed up enough for her to redo it as a shorter skirt. Again, some time later, she may discard her warm shirt and rewrap her pāreu as a dress.
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