Mourner's dress

From the Society Islands, French Polynesia
Pre-18th century AD

This dress would have been worn by the chief mourner, either a priest or a close relative, of an important deceased person. He carried a menacing long club edged with shark teeth, and led a procession of mourners through the local area, attacking people, sometimes fatally. This 'reign of terror' could last for up to a month.

Captain Cook's crew saw mourners' dresses on their first voyage, but it was not until the second voyage (1772 -75) that examples were collected. Cook wrote in his journal for 7 May 1774 that a complete example had been presented to him; it is believed that this refers to the mourner's dress that he subsequently presented to the British Museum, which is shown here.

The main section of the dress is made from barkcloth, with a feather mantle at the back and feather tassels at the sides. The face mask is made of pearl shell surmounted by tropical bird feathers. The wooden crescent-shaped breast ornament is also decorated with pearl shell. A chest apron of pearl shell slivers is suspended from this. The barkcloth waist apron is decorated with coconut shell discs.

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Mourner's dress

Mourner's dress (Ethno TAH 78)


More information


B.A.L. Cranstone and H. J Gowers, 'The Tahitian mourner's dress: a discovery and a description', The British Museum Quarterly-8, 32: 3-4 (1968), pp. 138-44, plates 52-56

A.L. Kaeppler, Artificial Curiosities: being (Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 1978)

J. Mack (ed.), Masks: the art of expression (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)

T. Henry, Ancient Tahiti (Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 48, 1928)


Height: 214.000 cm

Museum number



Collected on the second voyage of Captain James Cook (1772 -75)


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