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Photographing Korowai

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

Do I need to bring my own whānau Korowai plus other questions + answers about traditional Māori cloaks

Do I need to bring my own whānau [family] Korowai?

Yes, you will need to bring your own whānau Korowai. Because of the cultural significance of traditional Māori cloaks and what they represent, this is not something we can provide at the studio.

Some of my clients have used a traditional whānau Korowai that has been passed down through generations and others have bought a new Korowai that has been created for their whānau with the intention of it being passed down to their tamariki [children] and mokopuna [grandchildren].

A new pēpi [baby] can be welcomed into the world by gifting them their own whānau Korowai to be wrapped and celebrated in. However, some of my clients have chosen to photograph their pēpi with their (adult sized) whānau Korowai.

Many of my clients have also bought along other meaningful items that have been gifted to their pēpi — such as their pito cutter, pounamu and poi.

We take care to respect Tikanga [protocols and customs] at all times.

When should a Korowai be worn?

The name Korowai is symbolic of leadership, and includes the obligation to care for the people and environment.

A Korowai represents the mana of a person and is worn as a mantle of prestige and honour. They are most commonly worn on special occasions, whether a significant hui and coming together of people, the birth of a new pēpi or a significant graduation or birthday.

When a wāhine (woman) wearing a Korowai is pregnant it adds to the importance of the Korowai as it now serves "like a kind of protection for both mother and child", says Donna Campbell - a Maori weaver and a lecturer at Waikato University in Hamilton.

The cloaks hold stories of history or whānau and whakapapa [genealogy]. They are held in the highest regard and worn with the highest form of respect.

Can I wear a Korowai if I am not Māori

Many people wonder if it’s appropriate for someone who is not Māori to be gifted or loaned a Korowai to wear?

For centuries, cloaks have been gifted to manuhiri [guests] to our country as a form of respect and to honour the individual in a way that only Māori culture can. There is, and always has been, contention around the topic of non-Māori wearing or being gifted Māori cloaks depending on personal, iwi [tribe] and hapū [subtribe] beliefs.

Our Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern often wears a Korowai for significant events overseas - for example, she wore a traditional Korowai at the Commonwealth Summit in 2018. It was gifted to her by a Maori group in London for her to wear during the event.

Speaking about this event Ms Campbell said "What it represents is the mana of a person, that's the prestige and power of the person wearing it. So for Jacinda to be wearing it at this event completely fits with the weight of the occasion; from a Maori point of view, this garment is entirely appropriate."

Queen Elizabeth II was gifted a Korowai in the 1950s — it was kept here in New Zealand for her to wear whenever she visited.

What are the main differences between the styles of Māori cloaks?

There are specific names for the various styles. Korowai is the name of a Muka [flax fibre/fine threads] cloak with Hukahuka adornment [tassels], while Kākahu is the Māori word for clothing, however in reference to a cloak it is more commonly used when describing a full feather cloak.

There are other names for cloaks made from various mediums, for example Pake [rain cloaks], woven with durable dried leaves; Kahi Koati, woven with goat hair; Kahu Huruhuru, woven with full feather coverage; Kahu Kiwi, with full kiwi feather coverage; and Kaitaka, a fine Muka cloak with Tāniko [a traditional weaving technique] borders.

How are Māori cloaks made?

Traditionally all raranga and weaving are handmade with harakeke [flax] hand worked into Muka. Traditional Korowai and Kakahu can take up to one year to weave. Karakia [prayer] is practiced throughout the weaving process and Kawa and Tikanga is always adhered to.

The skill and time it takes to weave a traditional Māori cloak are only two of the reasons why they are our most prestigious and highly honoured taonga [sacred item] and why our traditional master weavers are held in such high regard.

Contemporary cloaks come in many forms; the revival of cloak-weaving techniques through wānanga [courses] held at marae all over the country see many weavers using the cotton cord as opposed to hand-processed Muka. These hand-woven cloaks can take two to six months to weave.

It is important to respect the Tikanga around the creation of any Māori taonga and to acknowledge the origins and tipuna [ancestors] from whom these precious skills, knowledge and culture have been passed down.

Māori Culture is an area of learning and development for us; so we have relied on some external sources when writing this article:

Newborn baby girl wearing her traditional whānau Korowai  and holding her mother's pounamu. Portrait by Christchurch Newborn Photographer Kirsten Naomi Photography
Newborn baby girl wearing her traditional whānau Korowai and holding her mother's pounamu. Portrait by Christchurch Newborn Photographer Kirsten Naomi Photography


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