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The coconut bra, with its half coconut shells covering each breast, is an iconic symbol of Hawaiian and Polynesian culture. Though the origins of this unique garment are uncertain, the coconut bra remains a popular costume and continues to fascinate people worldwide.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: The Hawaiian coconut bra likely originated in the early 20th century as a costume for Hawaiian hula dancers and tourism promotions

The Possible Origins of the Hawaiian Coconut Bra

Early Hawaiian Grass Skirts and Toplessness

Before the introduction of the iconic coconut bra, early Hawaiian women wore grass skirts as part of their traditional attire. These skirts were made from various plant materials, such as hala leaves and ti leaves.

Interestingly, women in ancient Hawaiian society did not typically wear tops, as it was common for them to be topless. This practice was not seen as immodest or scandalous, but rather as a reflection of the island’s warm climate and relaxed cultural norms.

Tourism Promotion in the Early 1900s

The popularity of the Hawaiian Islands as a tourist destination began to rise in the early 1900s. As more visitors arrived, there was a growing demand for souvenirs and mementos that represented the unique Hawaiian culture.

It is believed that the coconut bra was introduced during this time as a novelty item for tourists. The bra, made from two half coconut shells tied together with string or twine, quickly became associated with the tropical allure of Hawaii.

According to historical accounts, the coconut bra gained attention when it was worn by hula dancers during performances for tourists. The sight of women dancing in grass skirts and coconut bras became a popular image associated with Hawaiian culture and further perpetuated the notion of the coconut bra as a symbol of the islands.

Development as a Hula Costume

Over time, the coconut bra evolved from a tourist novelty item to a staple costume piece in traditional hula dancing.

Hula, a form of storytelling through dance, is deeply rooted in Hawaiian culture and history. The coconut bra became a part of the hula costume, adding an element of authenticity and cultural significance to the performances.

Today, the coconut bra is still commonly used in hula dances, both in traditional and modern interpretations. It has become an iconic symbol of Hawaiian culture, recognized worldwide.

While it may have started as a tourism-based novelty, the coconut bra has become an integral part of Hawaiian identity and a representation of the rich cultural heritage of the islands.

Also read: Hawaiian Dress Up Day: A Complete Guide

Cultural Meanings of the Coconut Bra

The coconut bra is not just a fashion accessory; it holds deep cultural meanings in the Hawaiian tradition. It has been a significant part of the Polynesian culture for centuries and continues to symbolize various aspects of Hawaiian identity.

Let’s explore some of the cultural meanings associated with the iconic coconut bra.

Symbol of Female Sexuality

The coconut bra is often seen as a symbol of female sexuality in Hawaiian culture. It is believed to represent femininity and the beauty of the female form.

Historically, coconut bras lacked evidence as common attire for hula dancers in ancient Hawaiian performances, focusing on lower-body skirts. Modern interpretations occasionally include them for visual appeal, deviating from traditional practice. 

Also read: The Allure And History Of Hawaiian Belly Dance

Representing the Islander Archetype

Wearing a coconut bra is seen as a way to embrace and celebrate the islander archetype. The coconut bra, along with other traditional Hawaiian attire, helps create a sense of cultural identity and pride.

It is a visual representation of the unique island lifestyle, connecting individuals to their roots and heritage. By wearing a coconut bra, Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike can pay homage to the rich history and traditions of the Hawaiian people.

Critiques and Controversies

While the coconut bra holds cultural significance, it has also faced critiques and controversies.

Some argue that the commodification and appropriation of the coconut bra by the mainstream media and popular culture have reduced its cultural value.

Critics claim that it is often portrayed in a sexualized manner, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and objectifying women.

It is important to approach the coconut bra with respect and understanding, recognizing its cultural importance while being mindful of its potential implications.

The Coconut Bra in Pop Culture

The Hawaiian coconut bra has become an iconic symbol of Polynesian culture and is often associated with tropical paradise and exoticism.

Over the years, it has made its way into popular culture, leaving a lasting impression on various entertainment mediums. From Hollywood films to Halloween costumes, the coconut bra continues to captivate and intrigue people around the world.

Elvis Presley and Hollywood Films

The coconut bra gained significant exposure in the 1960s thanks to Elvis Presley and his portrayal of the character Chad Gates in the musical film “Blue Hawaii.” In the movie, Presley sports a memorable outfit that includes a Hawaiian shirt and, of course, a coconut bra.

This film not only popularized the image of Elvis wearing a coconut bra but also introduced Hawaiian culture to a global audience. It became a visual representation of the Hawaiian islands and their laid-back lifestyle, forever ingrained in the public’s consciousness.

Also read: Elvis Presley’S Iconic Hawaii Home: A History

Halloween Costumes

Another avenue where the coconut bra has found its place is in Halloween costumes.

Each year, many individuals choose to dress up in costumes inspired by different cultures and themes. The Hawaiian coconut bra often makes an appearance in these costumes, representing the fun and vibrant spirit of the islands.

While some may argue that these costumes can perpetuate stereotypes or cultural appropriation, others view it as a celebration and appreciation of Hawaiian culture.

It is essential to approach these costumes with respect and understanding, recognizing the cultural significance behind them.

Cultural Appropriation Debates

The use of the coconut bra has sparked debates surrounding cultural appropriation. Some argue that wearing the coconut bra as a fashion statement without understanding its cultural context can be disrespectful and offensive.

It is crucial to recognize that the coconut bra has deep cultural significance in Hawaiian traditions, often associated with hula dancing and storytelling.

Engaging in conversations about cultural appropriation allows us to better understand the origins and meaning behind cultural symbols like the coconut bra, fostering a more inclusive and respectful society.

Coconut Bras Today: Authentic Hula and Curiosities

The coconut bra, also known as the “halau niu,” holds a significant place in Hawaiian culture and history. While it is often associated with hula performances, it has also become a popular souvenir and even a curiosity for tourists.

Let’s explore the various ways coconut bras are used today and the cultural significance they hold.

Usage in Hula Performances

One of the most authentic uses of coconut bras is in traditional hula performances. Hula, a traditional Hawaiian dance, often depicts stories and legends through graceful movements.

The coconut bra is worn by female dancers during certain hula dances, adding an element of traditional attire and cultural authenticity. It is a symbol of femininity and grace, enhancing the overall visual appeal of the performance.

Tourist Souvenirs and Kitsch

For many tourists visiting Hawaii, the coconut bra has become a popular souvenir. It represents the vibrant and exotic culture of the islands, and wearing one can be a fun and playful way to embrace the Hawaiian spirit.

However, it’s important to note that these tourist souvenirs may not always adhere to the traditional craftsmanship or cultural significance of the authentic coconut bras used in hula performances.

It’s not uncommon to find coconut bras in gift shops, alongside other Hawaiian-themed items like leis and grass skirts. They have become a quirky and light-hearted symbol of the Hawaiian experience.

Some people even collect coconut bras as part of their novelty item collections, adding to the kitsch factor associated with these unique garments.

DIY Coconut Bras

Another interesting aspect of coconut bras today is the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) culture surrounding them. Many creative individuals have taken the concept of the coconut bra and turned it into a craft project. Using real coconuts or alternative materials, people have designed their own versions of the iconic garment.

DIY coconut bras can be seen at costume parties, music festivals, and even as part of creative fashion statements. They offer a way for individuals to express their love for Hawaiian culture and creativity, while also adding a touch of whimsy to their outfits.

If you’re interested in making your own coconut bra, there are various tutorials available online that guide you through the process. Just remember to have fun and embrace the playful nature of this unique accessory.

Also read: Traditional Hawaiian Clothing: A Guide To The Aloha State’S Rich Cultural Attire


The Hawaiian coconut bra has a fascinating history and cultural significance. While its origins are unclear, it developed as a Hawaiian hula costume in the early 20th century and became known worldwide through tourism promotions and popular media.

Today it remains a symbol of island culture and female sexuality, though the use of the coconut bra is debated. For Hawaiians, it is an authentic part of hula dancing traditions, but it also represents cultural appropriation and commercialization for others.

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