Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A sisi fale

1886.1.1332 Sisi Fale

Number 61 in the Catalogue of Curiosities is 'An apron made of fibres of cocoanut, beset with feathers and bits of shells.'  This apron, known as a sisi fale, was one of the most prestigious items collected on Tonga.  It is made from coconut fibre, which has been plaited to form star shapes.  Rectangular extensions on the back of each star have been sewn together to form a skirt.  The coconut fibre has been decorated with red parrot feathers, small beads made from shell and a pig's tooth.

1886.1.1332 Reverse of sisi fale

Sisi fale were worn only by very high-ranking members of Tongan Society.  They could be used by the Tu'i Tonga (the divine line of Tongan kings), his sister (the Tu'i Tonga Fefine), the Tamaha (her daughter) and possibly some other descendants of the Tu'i Tonga, and would be worn on ceremonial occasions or for dancing.  

George Forster writes in 'A Voyage Round the World' that when in Tonga in October 1773 'we likewise purchased of them an apron, consisting of many wheels or stars of plaited cocoanut fibres, about three or four inches in diameter, cohering together by the projecting points, and ornamented with small red feathers and beads cut out of shells.’  This is the apron now in the Pitt Rivers collection.  The materials of the sisi fale were all considered sacred in Polynesia, and the act of combining them into a garment for chiefs was itself a sacred process.  The name sisi (decorated girdle) and fale, (house) may relate to the fact that the skirt was made in secret, away from casual observers.  

Detail of reverse.  The waist-band is at the bottom of the image

There are no sisi fale in Tonga today, as their manufacture stopped shortly after Cook's visit, probably due to social change in Tonga at that time, when the power of the Tu'i Tonga line was replaced by the Tu'i Kanokupulu line of kings with its own traditions.

The skirt is not complete, and the feathers at first sight appeared to have been eaten away by insect pests, but only in certain areas.  An explanation of the condition of the mat can be found in Reinhold Forster's 'Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World', where he writes; 'We accidentally procured a quantity of these feathers at Amsterdam, one of the Friendly Isles, where they fastened them on pieces of their stuffs.  These being carried to O-Taheitee, and shared out in little pieces, procured us a great number of hogs; for a bit of two inches square covered with feathers, would at any time, be easily purchased with a hog.'   

So the skirt was cut up and the remaining red feathers were pulled out and used as trade items, possibly to obtain, amongst other things, the Mourner's costume mentioned in previous posts.

See Adrienne L. Kaeppler, 'Eighteenth Century Tonga : New Interpretations of Tongan Society and Material Culture at the Time of Captain Cook' Man, New Series, Vol. 6, No.2 (June 1971) pp 204-220

Adrienne L' Kaeppler, 'Kie Hingoa: Mats of Power, Rank, Prestige and History' Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 108 No.2 1999. pp168-232