How to Use a Pareu as a Simple Dress or Cover

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How to wear a pareu as a dress.
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A demonstration of one way to wear a pareu.

Going native, in the Polynesian fashion, can be a glamorous and comfortable experience as participants in our South Seas Seminar discovered this past winter. It seemed like we’d barely arrived in that tropical, flower-laden paradise before most of the female tour members began learning to wrap themselves in the versatile native “pareu.”

Although the colorful clothing was once made exclusively of tapa cloth (produced from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree), the modern pareu is usually cotton and features white or yellow floral designs on a red or blue background. Nowadays, however, the traditional attire (which, in its various permutations, is worn by men and women) can also be seen in a rainbow of hand-printed, batiked and tie-dyed materials including jersey, polyester, Indian gauze and French voile.

The garment starts as a piece of cloth slightly over two yards long (1.90 meters, to be exact) and 45 inches wide. (If you’re very tall or very short, you may want to try a different width.) And there’s certainly no reason at all to keep this tropical wraparound confined to a South Seas island or even to the beach and back yard. It could also provide a beautiful, appropriate (according to how it’s tied), and thrifty outfit to wear to a picnic, to a dinner party, or even for a night out on the town.

So, since we figured that many of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ readers would be glad of a chance to increase the versatility of their wardrobes at little cost, we asked Marline Post-ma — a French Polynesian woman who, with her husband Richard, helps run the Hotel Bora Bora on the little island of the same name — to demonstrate just a few of the ways in which her national costume can be worn.

Making a Long Skirt

This hipline style involves wearing the pareu widthwise. Start as you do when tying the “short version, knotting the “bunny ear” at whatever spot will allow you to secure it to the back corner for a good fit. But, at this point, take what’s left over, fold it in two vertically and truck the upper edge of the panel over the knot, letting the long fold drape down your leg.

Making a Short Skirt

You can produce a short style if you hold the pareu lengthwise and fold it in two. Then, put the fold on your hip line and tie a “bunny ear” at a point on the front of the material which will — when knotted to the back corner — allow the garment to fit snugly. Then you can take the remaining material, force it up and under the knot, pull it until it’s even, and unfold it into a neat drape.

Making a Strapless Dress

Centering the material in the back, grab two little “bunny ears” of cloth from the top of the front “flaps.” Then twist these around each other a few times until the material is closed tightly across the bust line, tuck them in and arrange the front folds neatly.

Making a Slit Skirt

Some more modern versions of the Polynesian garment require working with the pareu lengthwise. To create a simple (but elegant) dress, just tie it on one shoulder, then lift the skirt slightly to make it the desired length, and fold it across the hip line. Conclude the garment with another knot at that point.

Making a One-Sleeve Dress

One of the most popular ways of donning the pareu is to simply hold a corner of the material in front (or in back) of a shoulder, wrap the cloth almost twice about your body and then tie it over your shoulder.

Making a Biking Outfit

When your day will include bicycling (or any activity which requires that your legs be unencumbered), you can tie the pareu in the back as a strapless top (or around the neck as in the crisscross version below). Then pass the material back between your legs, bring the end around to the front and tie it off at the waist.

Martine showed us quite a few other ways to drape, tie, and wear this simple attire that we don’t have room to describe here. However, with a little experimentation you can likely come up with some versions of your own that no one else has even thought of! For example, by using a piece of material three or more yards long, you can actually devise a variety of floor-length gowns.

Remember, too, that a pareu can substitute as a beach mat, towel, tablecloth, curtain or turban. As someone once suggested, it could even be used as a sail in an emergency!