Little is documented on the history of the pareo. However much can be compared to the ancient art of tapa making. Clothing of Tahiti (French Polynesia) traditionally was made of ti leaf, banana leaf, lauhala leaf, coconut fiber, inner wild hibiscus bark, ulu (breadfruit) bark, and inner paper mulberry bark. Ulu bark and paper mulberry bark were used to make a fabric called tapa. The paper mulberry was the most popular bark used for this purpose.
The word pareo has been used generically to mean any wrap which holds true for other similar words such as sarong. A pareo did not evolve from a sarong or vice versa. Each of these cultures has unique designs. A wrap with Indonesian designs is a sarong and a wrap with Tahitian designs is a pareo.
Traditional Tahitian Bark-cloth (Tapa) Robe. Paris, Musée de l'Homme
It's as easy as a point and click. Today, a pareo can arrive on your doorstep in a very short amount of time. You can even get instructions on how to make and how to tie a pareo readily available to anyone with a computer and access to the internet. It's a contrast in study to the ancient Tahitians and their pareos and dress.
Unlike other populated areas of the world, the islands in the South Pacific did not use plants to make woven fabric. Although cotton and other fabric making plants were available, the islanders did not acquaint themselves with traditional textiles and woven materials common in western society. Instead they made clothing and light garments from tapa (beaten bark) or woven leaves, most notably the lauhala (pandanus).
The most common dress for the men was the maro, a simple loin-cloth. Similar to the malo of Hawaii, this traditional dress consisted of a single narrow piece of tapa wrapped around the waist and between the legs. It was a practical dress for the hot and humid climate that Tahiti experiences almost all year round.
Women of ancient Tahiti wore a pa-u or pareu (pareo), a garment tied around the waist that usually draped to the knees. Prior to contact with western ideals, women often went topless during the regular course of the day. As western influence entered the Tahitian society as well as other South Pacific islands, the women gradually adapted the pareo to mimic western women's wear. Most visible was a simple tie over one shoulder and leaving the opposite shoulder bare. It was a practical adjustment that gave modesty to their island wear.
In cooler weather and during celebrations or festivals, men and women both added a tiputa (tapa poncho). With a vertical slit to allow for the head through, and open sleeves and sides, it allowed for a limited amount of protection. At times it was decorated with printed designs such as leaves, ferns, or depictions close to the individual.
Clothing in general was of a loose nature other than the everyday maro. As tapa making is a labor intensive process, tailoring to the individual for such a short time in which the tapa was useful, was not practical. The tapa cloth layers were called 'ahu (draped tapa).
Everyday common clothes were usually brown due to the natural coloring produced from the bark of the banyan and the paper mulberry trees. For special occasions, times of celebration, and for those of high rank or importance, a beautiful white tapa made from the bark of the ulu (breadfruit) tree was worn. It was called the ahupuupuu. Royalty also wore tiputa embellished with red and black feathers, robes of tapa and pareu made of fine mats.
It's important to know that the change from tapa to conventional western style cloth was a gradual process. The initial introductions to the cloth were by western explorers. They would come in military attire fashioned in cloth textiles. As a gift or trade with the arii (royalty) they would sometimes offer pieces of clothing that were admired by the islanders. It was a symbol of status to those ancient islanders. Gradually as more and more ships arrived, more clothing was introduced and more people were able to obtain the cloth.
European explorers of the 1700s introduced textiles and the advent of industrial advances. But it was when the Christian missionaries arrived a short time later that cotton clothing replaced the bark wraps. The missionaries desired to "civilize" the Tahitians and taught them that there should be a degree of modesty. They introduced European clothing and textiles, higher in quality and more durable than the traditional tapa cloth.
With trade routes established, supply lines for breadfruit, vanilla, and coconuts were not the only things Westerners saw potential for. It was not until merchant ships, with purposes to trade and make a profit in a new market, did the clothing of Westerners take a more dominant role. Not only was the westerners cloth easier to work with, but it also was more durable, functional, long-lasting, stronger and capable of absorbing a variety of dyes to ornament.
Eventually the use of tapa as clothing became obsolete. Western style of dress was modified and adapted to suit island lifestyles. In the 20th century, the dawning of the modern day pareo began. It was after a wartime shortage of cotton from England during World War II, that the value of the modern pareo become apparent. Pareos became scarce. But with the war over, production began again.
Tahitian designs on the fabric were either freehand drawings resembling designs in wood carving and tattoos or prints using fern leaves and flowers. Modern Tahitian designs follow one of two methods: highly stylized tattoo, flower and fern patterns screened onto fabric through manufacturing or hand-dyed with the use of fern or flower stencils. The fabric is generally 2 yards in length and can be made out of cotton, rayon or silk. Many designs feature bright colors and reflect the beautiful colors seen in the islands.
The Art of Tahiti Barrow, Tui Terrence 1979 (out of print)
Islands of Tahiti Christian, Erwin and Raymond Bagnis 1983 (out of print)
Tahiti Stanley, David 2003
Pareo Paradise Wilson, Patricia & Christian 1984
Arii Creations Tahiti 1985
Pareo Hermes Paris 1988
No Pareu! Pacific Islands Monthly Feb 17, 1944 v 14 n7 pg 28
Ancient Tahiti Henry, Teuira 1971
The Tahiti Handbook Saquet, Jean Louis 1998
Oceanic Art Kaeppler, Kaufmann, Newton 1997