What is a Pareo?

Sheri Cyprus

A pareo is a rectangular piece of fabric that is wrapped and tied to create different clothing pieces. Pareos are worn by men and women in tropical South Pacific countries. They date back to ancient Tahiti, which is known as French Polynesia. The pareo is traditional wear that was first created from cloth made of bark and leaves.

Woman shopping
Woman shopping

The pareo is similar to the sarong, but the main difference is where they originated. Pareos are what the long rectangles of body wrapping fabric are called in French Polynesia, whereas sarongs come from Indonesia. Ancient Tahitian patterns are often floral, and the colors are either bright or have a watercolor effect. To achieve the popular rainbow watercolor look used for many pareos, Polynesians use Hawaiian rock salt over dyes or paints.

The salt is sprinkled onto the colored pareo fabric; the dyed and salted cloth must bake in the sun to create the full watercolor effect. The ancient way of making pareos was to use grass and bark to make the fabric before stamping on dye-dipped ferns, grasses, and barks to create the patterns. Before the influence of western attitudes, Tahitian women went mostly topless and wore a parea as a skirt. Tahitian men wore pareos mostly as loin cloths.

Today, Polynesian men wear the pareo as a waist wrap, while there are 30 or more ways for women to tie and wrap pareos. For instance, the neckline variations include halter, straight, drop, and one shoulder styles. Within these necklines, the options increase further since a halter neck may feature a wider soft tie at the corners of a pareo, or thinner tying pieces may be made by twisting the fabric in a tight, rope-like way. Pareos tied on one shoulder were one of the first dress styles to become popular in French Polynesia.

Today, most pareos are made from rayon, silk, or cotton. Some may be created of thinner wool or wool blends. Whether bright or watercolored, most pareos have repeating abstract patterns or floral designs.

It's interesting to note that the versatility of the pareo doesn't end with clothing. Since pareos are rectangles of cloth, they can serve many purposes. For example, pareos can make attractive curtains, tablecloths, pillow covers and beach throws. Beautifully patterned pareos may even be hung as wall art, such as over a bed to create a tropical headboard look.

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Discussion Comments


I used to think pareos and sarongs for women were the same, and just swimwear cover ups. It sounds to me though like this is how people in the US see it, but really there's a difference, mainly that a pareo can be a whole outfit. I wish I could go somewhere in world where these are traditional and see for myself, though.


One cool way to decorate your home is to use pareos as curtains or wall hangings. I also like to throw them over lounge chairs during warm weather, or to use thicker ones as blackout curtains when lights outside are too bright. They add that unexpected splash of color, and every one is different.

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