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Weaving culture into fabrics at PCC

Preserving and portraying the Polynesian Cultural Center's cultural authenticity in the seamstress department

Seamstresses work diligently at the PCC to make the costumes authentic to the cultures they represent.
Photo by Yui Leung

The Polynesian Cultural Center seamstress department, together with students, service missionaries and community members, bring their personal experience and knowledge to create authentic costumes to echo the spirit of Polynesia, says the PCC website. Polynesian cultures have complex details woven into each piece of traditional attire, according to the website. Each pattern, stitching and color represent a distinct tradition from a particular island culture.

Elizza Keni, assistant supervisor for textile and uniform design at PCC from Australia, said although some workers at the Center are behind the scenes and out of the spotlight, the seamstress department plays a pivotal role in the creation of traditional costumes and uniforms used by staff and performers around the Center.


Keni said the seamstress department started when the PCC opened in 1963. She said there were two or three seamstress departments that focused on performers and uniforms. She said the department’s goals shift from time to time to allow all of the workers to appreciate their work and the culture of each piece of clothing and fabric. “Though changes occur from time to time, the importance of bringing the culture to the world stuck with our minds. This mindset helped us to show the world what Polynesia is,” she said.

During those early years, Keni said the skills and knowledge about Polynesian quilts and fabrics were passed down to young workers and encouraging them to continue the tradition moving forward. “The aunties kept reminding us to love what we are doing. They reminded us that every time we put our whole love and effort into seaming the clothes, it can heavily affect the guest’s experience,” she said. Up to this day, she said this is still observed in their department, continuing the tradition.

The PCC website says each performer’s costume is a conduit for the cultural stories it represents. As part of the seamstress department, the employees’ roles are to help portray the story through the clothes they make. Each garment, whether it is for Aotearoa’s haka or Tahiti’s dance, carries with it centuries of stories, celebrations and ceremonies.

A seamstress works on the finer details of a costume.
Photo by Yui Leung

Preserving culture

Keni said part of preserving culture is to pattern and buy the fabrics from places where they originate. She said most of the fabrics are available here in Hawaii, but for some costumes, the fabrics are only available to their respective islands. “We have ample help from many people to source the fabrics and materials we use. Most managers on each island know people, either around the island or outside the island, [where] they can source the supplies we need or a specific attire they want. It takes diligent communication with each island manager to see if we made the costume the right representation of the culture,” she said.

Keni explained most traditional costumes can take up to one year to make due to the sourcing of fabrics and the need to provide sample designs, and get approval from cultural specialists to start making it. “Besides sewing their attires, it takes a lot of our time and effort to get it done. Although, not all attires needed that long to make. It is just the traditional costume that needs that much time to consider,” she said.

Olivia Drake, a senior and a student seamstress from Idaho majoring in intercultural peacebuilding and psychology, said before coming to Hawaii she found out PCC was the best representation of Polynesian culture. She said being able to work at PCC was the best decision she made to learn more about Polynesia, especially the types of clothing they sew every day. Drake said, “As part of this special department of PCC, we aim as a team to preserve, promote and share the culture with tourists and guests through the traditional clothes each island wears.” She said they make sure before they change the patterns of traditional clothes they are sewing, it should be approved by each culture it represents.

Keni added, “Besides the traditional fabrics we are working on, the best way for us to preserve the culture is to carefully mentor the upcoming workers and future department managers about our work.” She explained past workers created a similar working environment they all share, where workers and managers respect the culture of the island and take care of each of their respective costumes. “It is more than just sewing. It is showing love through your work,” she said.

Judy Mansen, a service missionary from Ellis, Idaho, said the center makes sure proper fabrics go to their proper islands. “I know I have been sewing most of my life, but it is important to remember when you are working for a cultural center to make sure your fabrics and styles fit the island it represents. That does not only make the Center authentic but preserves the culture and history behind the design of each costume,” she said.

The future

Drake said the future looks promising for the Center “because we aim to preserve the Center’s culture. There is an emphasis on using an integration of techniques and using modern technology to create clothes for the future. We make sure to maintain the cultural significance of each piece of clothing we make, even when materials are evolving and current machines are being replaced with new ones.”

Ever since Keni started working in the seamstress department, she said she saw enormous changes within their department on how they create the clothes. “I started working here when most laborers needed a manual effort from everyone to create a certain costume. Right now, I have seen the PCC update most of the machines that we are using and slowly turning to digital.

“Although modern technology is paving its way to our department, it does not take away our responsibility to create the best and most authentic costume a performer will wear,” Keni said.