The Surprising Benefits of West Papua Traditional Clothing and Textiles

west papua

The provinces of West Papua and Papua are famous for their vibrant wildlife and diverse people. Likewise, Papuan traditional clothing and textiles are as diverse as the people.

Many native Papuans still proudly wear their traditional attire. Not only beautiful, Papuan traditional clothing also provides certain benefit to the wearer.

Papuan Traditional Clothing

Papuan traditional clothing varies between different tribes. While the main attire may look similar, each and every tribe has their own unique trait.

It is not an exaggeration to even say that Papua’s traditional attire is as diverse as the people. However, almost all Papuan tribes’ traditional attire includes koteka, sali, yokal, and rok rumbai.

1. Koteka

Koteka is perhaps the most well-known West Papua traditional clothing. Papuan men use koteka to cover their genitals and to prevent it from flailing when they’re doing anything.

Besides coverings, koteka also functions as a social status symbol by how they’re worn:

  • If the koteka is worn upright, the wearer is deemed as a grown man but has zero sexual intercourse experience.
  • The koteka is worn tilted to the right, it symbolizes the wearer’s masculinity and high social status within the tribe.
  • If the koteka is worn tilted to the left, it shows that the wearer is a middle-class man whose ancestor was a warrior.

2. Sali and Yokal

Both sali and yokal are parts of women’s attire in various Papuan tribes. Both are cape- or robe-like garments with intricate patterns and varying colors.

However, sali is for unmarried women, while yokal is for married and widowed women.

What sets the two apart is the pattern and color woven into the clothing. Both sali and yokal are wear by wrapping it around the woman’s upper bodies.

3. Rok Rumbai

Rok rumbai or tassel skirt is Papuan traditional clothing typically worn by women. It was made with dry sago leaves woven into a skirt.

As a skirt, rok rumbai is wear to cover the wearer’s lower half of the body. Some tribes would wear this traditional attire without a top.

The wearers will often draw traditional West Papua motifs on their upper bodies. Some other tribes would wear rok rumbai combined with sali or yokal.

The Materials

Living a largely hunter-gatherer way of life, Papuan tribes typically woven or made their traditional clothing from various materials that can be find in nature.

Three of the most common materials used in West Papua traditional clothing are barkcloth (tapa), palm fibers, and grasscloth.

1. Barkcloth

Barkcloth is a type of cloth made from the inner bark of a tree (typically from the family Moraceae) made in the Pacific Ocean islands.

It was make by beating the fibrous bark into thin sheets. The cloth can then be woven into various traditional attire like sali, yokal, etc.

2. Palm Fibers

One of the most versatile and widely available materials in West Papua, fibers of various palm trees such as coconut and sago.

These fibers are spun and twist to make a long strand of threads before being woven into a cloth.

3. Grasscloth

Ewer, a type of grasscloth make from woven dried straws, is another example of materials use in West Papua traditional attire.

The cloth is typically use to cover the lower part of the wearer’s body, similar to rok rumbai.

Benefits of West Papua Traditional Attire

In the context of West Papua and Papuans as a whole, one of the benefits of wearing one’s traditional clothing is to embrace their identity.

Tribal communities also use their traditional attire to assert their social status and show which tribe they belong to.

In hindsight, Papuan traditional attire may seem like it doesn’t cover many areas of the wearer’s body.

However, given the nature of their culture, the openness of the attire helps ward off the heat and humidity of Papuan rainforest.

It also helps with overall mobility and range of motions. As a conclusion, West Papua traditional clothing and textiles are the product of Papuans indigenous way to thrive in their environment.