ZoneModa Journal. Vol.9 n.2 (2019)
ISSN 2611-0563

Bilum, Bilas, Bilumwear: PNG Women Loop Stylish Dresses to Create New Identities

Elisabetta Gnecchi-RusconeUniversità di Milano Bicocca (Italy)

She is an anthropologist specialised in Papua New Guinea, where she has done fieldwork among Korafe in Tufi, (1987–88 and 2013). A lecturer on ‘Societies and Cultures of the Pacific’, Università di Milano Bicocca, she has collaborated with Museo delle Culture del Mondo – Castello D’Albertis in Genova, Museo delle Culture in Lugano, and MUDEC in Milano. Among her publications: Oceania, 2010 Electa, and Hazan, 2011; Antropologia dell’Oceania (with A. Paini), 2009, Cortina; Parallel Journeys in Korafe Women’s Laments (Papua New Guinea) JSO, 124, 2007; Tides of Innovation in Oceania (ed., with A. Paini, ANU Press, 2017); “The extraordinary value of ordinary objects: string bags and pandanus mats as Korafe women’s wealth?,” in Women’s Wealth in the Contemporary Pacific (edited by A. K. Hermkens and K. Lepani, ANU Press, 2017).

Published: 2019-12-23


Starting from a succinct introduction to Papua New Guinea and its history, this essay will sketch the significance of string bags (bilums) in traditional and contemporary lives of men and women throughout the country before looping back to considering the country’s colonial and postcolonial history from the perspective of the transformations in bodily attire as a result of mission and colonial influence, leading to a consideration the desires and intentions of contemporary women to wear clothes reflecting their current identity as citizens of a global world, with its implications of modernity, development, and gender. The spread of looped bilumwear garments in the market also represents an opportunity for income and autonomy for the women involved in its production.

Keywords: bilumwear; string bags; women; contemporary identities; fashion.


Like the looped fabric of bilumwear, this chapter is manufactured from a single strand of two-ply string that loops upon itself into a continuous weave, hopefully sufficiently flexible and stretchy to contain the different elements necessary to illustrate the development and meaning of this fashion statement by a group of contemporary women from Papua New Guinea. Starting from a succinct introduction to Papua New Guinea and its history, I will sketch the significance of string bags in traditional and contemporary lives of men and women throughout the country before looping back to considering the country’s colonial and postcolonial history from the perspective of the transformations in bodily attire as a result of mission and colonial influence, leading to a consideration the desires and intentions of contemporary women and to wear clothes reflecting their current identity as citizens of a global world, with its implications of modernity, development, and gender differentiation. The double strand of the looping string is therefore that of gender, ethnic and national identity on one side and ideas of tradition, modernity and emerging social class on the other. The developing bilumwear industry also resulted in opportunities for income and autonomy for a less privileged group of women, the workers in the cooperatives producing these fashionable clothes. The more successful bilumwear stylists, on the other hand, have also benefited from new entrepreneurial opportunities and from international attention as contemporary artists exposing in cosmopolitan museums and art galleries. Bilumwear is therefore considered both from the symbolic point of view as expressing ideas, but also, importantly, as agentive material objects: that is things that act in the world, creating new possibilities for habits and practices.

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half of the large island of new Guinea, to the North of Australia, it has been an independent Melanesian nation since 1975 after a variegated experience with German, British and Australian colonisers depending on the time and area.1 Even more varied than the experiences of foreign rule are the cultures of Papua New Guinea; its cultural diversity is reflected by the linguistic data that more than 800 indigenous languages, belonging to two distinct language groups, are spoken by the people inhabiting the villages and towns in the islands, coasts, swamps, forested valleys and plateaus of this country. Three official languages (English, Tok Pisin and, to a lesser extent, Hiri Motu) today act as linguae francae allowing communication among people from different areas of the country.

Other aspects of the cultures animating the life of this country, social organization, beliefs, customs, bodily attire and artistic traditions are as diverse as the language spoken, and have long attracted anthropological attention to its people who have responded to colonisation and missionary evangelisation with the typical Pacific capacity for creatively indigenising foreign influences, giving rise to complex, articulate and evolving contemporary cultures. Of particular relevance here is the variety of ways in which local communities expressed their culture and worldviews by using elements drawn from their natural environment to create highly distinctive styles of self adornment, both in everyday life and for ceremonial purposes. The importance of self-adornment, or bilas as it is called in Tok Pisin, has carried on in recent times, with the introduction and adoption of western items of clothing in alternative to or complementing the more traditional styles.2

The looped string bags of tradition

Among such astonishing diversity, it is surprising to find a relatively mundane item of personal attire cutting across cultural differences: string bags. Known locally by their indigenous names that may also differ according to their size and function, they are known throughout Papua New Guinea by their Tok Pisin name, bilum. In her ground-breaking book Androgynous objects Maureen MacKenzie describes the “flexible looped string bag” as

the most hard-worked accessory of everyday life in PNG. It appears in many sizes and shapes, from large flexible open-looped domestic carryalls to finger-sized tightly-looped amulets. The bilum is traditionally constructed from the interconnected loops of bark fibres handspun into a virtually unbreakable two-ply string. Each bag is completed from a single string, as the maker, usually although not always a woman, alternately adds to the string by spinning more fibres against the thigh, and then uses the new length to construct further loops of the bag.3

Though originally more common among the non-Austronesian speaking cultures of the interior of New Guinea, the skill of looping string bags has been transmitted through cultural contact between groups, in particular since colonial pacification has fostered increased mobility; today it is widely diffused throughout the country, in rural hamlets and in the growing urban centres. For several years now women from all walks of life in PNG have assimilated and incorporated foreign materials in their bilum making, from commercial dyes adding to the range of colours in their natural yarns, to imported strings of many different kinds. Though some conventional constraints on colour, design, and looping techniques reserved to specific groups or clans exist, women’s creativity and self expression have found a fertile ground in the experimenting allowed by this flexible and versatile item. Innovations in bilum styles are but one example of the cultural creativity emerging from exchanges and relationships between different traditions and cultures, of the “ability of articulating the outside and inside, the global and the local which explain the liveliness of many contemporary societies of Oceania.”4

Figure 1: The looped weave of bilums (©Jan Hasselberg 2016)
Figure 1: The looped weave of bilums (©Jan Hasselberg 2016)

The same versatility and flexibility of string bags is reflected in the uses to which bilums are put by women men and children, and by the significance attributed to them by different people in different places and contexts. Mackenzie charted the multiplicity of shapes, sizes, functions, and roles of string bags in everyday and ritual life of people in the country. It is worth recapitulating her splendidly illustrated ethnographic survey at some length, as it is the very characteristics and associations of string bags that she described that make contemporary looped bilumwear such an interesting and attractive choice for the young women of Papua New Guinea who are fashioning a new transnational identity for themselves without wishing to renounce their roots in the surprisingly varied traditions of their country.

At its most mundane, a string bag is a container used to carry, store and safeguard all sorts of objects and goods, from garden produce to personal belonging, from cradled infants to mementoes of the departed. It can be of different sizes, and the loops may be entwined loosely to make it stretchable, or more tightly to create a more concealing fabric; its elasticity and versatility make it a multifunctional accessory of daily life and attire, used by children, women and men.

In addition to utilitarian uses, string bags are also used as gifts in informal exchanges to forge, maintain and assert social ties between mothers and their sons and young daughters, wives and their husband and affines, sisters and their brothers, and between a woman and unrelated person with whom she wishes to establish or remark an amicable relationship (such as a visiting anthropologist). Among some bilum producing groups, string bags are also an important element in ceremonial exchanges occurring for example at initiation, marriage, and mortuary ceremonies; made by women, they are contributed as part of one group of participants’ gift to another group, thus contributing to the social exchanges between clans or lineages.5

Figure 2: Highlander dancers at the Morobe Show 2006. Looped net supports the feathers on their headdress (©Jan Hasselberg)
Figure 2: Highlander dancers at the Morobe Show 2006. Looped net supports the feathers on their headdress (©Jan Hasselberg)

The looping technique results in one of the few flexible and pliable cloth-like materials traditionally produced in New Guinea, the others being woven mats and the beaten bark cloth generally known as tapa in the Pacific area.6 In some of the bilum producing areas the same technique has also traditionally been used to produce other items more of, mainly ceremonial, garb such as the mourning capes worn by widows, the netted head coverings worn by men Highlands’ men under ceremonial headdresses, and men’s dancing aprons. Mackenzie describes how, already in the 1980’s, the assimilation of imported colourful wools in the production of bilums had given rise in the Gahuku Eastern Highlands to a creative evolution of colourful ceremonial looped cloaks produced by women for men to wear in order to enhance their appearance.7 Fine string bags are also displayed by women on ceremonial occasions, for example Umeda dancers of the Sandoun Province dance carrying their best string bags, empty but stretched out by inserting a small stick, to show off its design and display their feminine attributes in contrast to those performed by male dancers.8

Figure 3: Women dance displaying bilums. Morobe Show 2006 (© Jan Hasselberg)
Figure 3: Women dance displaying bilums. Morobe Show 2006 (© Jan Hasselberg)

The symbolic and cultural significance of bilums, beyond their utilitarian function, is also expressed throughout Papua New Guinea in local mythologies in which spirit women carry string bags, which become “embodiment of ritual potency representing cultural knowledge.”9 One such myth is told by the clan elders of the people who are believed to be the original inhabitants of the area around Tufi, in the Oro Province, and attests to the antiquity of the bilum making technological knowhow. It tells about life at a time of darkness, when men and women lived in caves and worked by the light of burning coconut fronds, until one man noticed a faint gleam of light to the east, over the sea. He persuaded his brothers to help him build a canoe and they paddled out to sea, following the glimmer until they spied an old woman working on a string bag by the light of something that she kept in a stoppered bamboo tube. When the old spirit woman fell asleep, the men stole the bamboo and paddled homeward, but the old lady, Abumarara, felt the sun’s heat leaving her side and awoke. She chased the men crying out: “where is my daylight?,” she turned into a cloud and then into thunder, she caught up with the canoe and began rocking it. The terrified men cracked open the tube against the side of their canoe, and the sun escaped into the sky, rising above the point of Kofure, as it still does every day at dawn to this day.

Figure 4: Tufi women with bilums paddle to the market (© Jan Hasselberg)
Figure 4: Tufi women with bilums paddle to the market (© Jan Hasselberg)

But going beyond even the symbolic, since Marylin Strathern’s argument on “Melanesian construction of artifacts perceived as images”10, anthropologists working in Oceania “have made ‘objects’ a prime focus of analysis—but objects redefined in terms of their innate subjectivities, their role as social agents”;11 they consider objects not just as things to be seen, appreciated aesthetically and interpreted as symbols of something else, but also as the stuff of experience, as creating social knowledge through bodily, sensorial experience. So, for example, gender identity is somehow ‘made’ rather than ‘expressed’ by the actions of women as they perform their everyday tasks, in the realms of production and reproduction. The very actions of gathering and preparing raw materials and then looping a string bag, the way in which the new bilum is flattened out to display it, rolled up inside-out to store it, loaded with produce and emptied of its contents, as well as the obvious parallels between a maternal womb and the shape of the bilum, its stretchiness, and its function as baby carrier and portable cot, are easily associated to a maternal womb. Furthermore, “the way in which the bilum is ‘carried’ by women but ‘worn’ by men provides a universally understood key to gender differentiation.”12

Figure 5: Baby cradled in his bilum (© Jan Hasselberg, 2010)
Figure 5: Baby cradled in his bilum (© Jan Hasselberg, 2010)

Beyond its association with a particular image of womanhood, the socially approved hard working mother who provides garden food for her family, contributes gifts to kin and clan, and bears children, many other aspects of identity may be looped into the texture and patterns of bilums, and in their use in the context of gift exchanges at ritual celebrating lifecycle events. In chapter 1 of Maureen MacKenzies’ exhaustive text, several aspects of identity associated in different PNG cultures to specific types of string bags are discussed. Particular styles of bilum are reserved in some societies, to mourners; for example in the Gulf, Western and Central Provinces of PNG widows wear tiny string bags around their necks, containing their deceased husbands’ personal possessions. At the end of the mourning period such string bags are burnt to effect a clean break between the widow and the deceased. In other societies, such as Abelam and throughout the East and West Sepik provinces, special kinds of bilums mark important stages in men and women’s lifecycles; in the Murik Lakes region a string bag decorated with cowrie shells is reserved to the head of the matriline.13 Local variations in techniques, colour and pattern combinations express the carrier’s regional identity. In the growing urban centres, bilums are also effective indicators of tribal identity, distinguishing women of different origins.

At same time though, in the early post-independence days, characterised by a search for shared customs and items of material culture speaking of a national identity forged out of the unique traditions of hundreds of different cultures, bilums emerged as one such transversal neo-traditional symbols of PNG unity14 More specifically they aptly represented an idealised rhetoric of PNG womanhood, referring to the qualities and values of kastom pertaining to a traditional but not primitive mother and wife, hardworking and nurturing, upholding the moral values of the community, accompanying her family on the path to development and independence. “A neo-traditional symbol, the string bag connects divergent past histories, validates traditional customs and stimulates a sense of unique PNG cultural heritage which owes nothing to western cultural forms.”15

Contemporary Bilums

Several authors have since commented on the creative ways in which PNG women have appropriated imported materials such as wool and synthetic yarn, or commercial dyes, to create new models and styles of string bags.16 As well as an avenue for creative expression, making bilums for sale has also offered women precious opportunities for earning cash and developing entrepreneurial capabilities. The markets of Goroka, Mount Hagen and Port Moresby, in particular, feature several bilum sellers with their colourful wares, for local and tourist buyers. Some women are now able to widen their market by selling overseas through merchants or directly online. Although women from most regions make string bags for themselves, for giving in formal and informal exchanges or for selling, certain regional centres have acquired a reputation for the commercial production of beautiful bilums, among these are the Southern and Eastern Highlands, for the colourful and soft stringbags, with addition of wool and animal fur, the Sepik for natural bark string bags, and the Madang area for their particular patterns in shades of purple obtained from natural dyes and the fringed finish.17 The new materials available have allowed women to save time for producing the yarns, to add to traditional patterns and designs and to infinitely increase the range of colours and hues; however, some women still prefer bush yarn for their string bags, especially for the strong, expandable large bilums for carrying heavy loads such as garden produce, or for the string bags made to sell to those tourists who appreciate the natural look of bush yarn.

Figure 6: A variety of bilum styles for sale at the Ukarumpa market (@Kunahupe Michael John, 2009)
Figure 6: A variety of bilum styles for sale at the Ukarumpa market (@Kunahupe Michael John, 2009)

The changes in contemporary string bags are also related to the new lifestyles and aspirations of its users. Generally speaking close-knit patterns and shorter handles are preferred by urban dwellers, who feel they are safer as their contents are more concealed and safer from pickpockets; smaller bilums are made for carrying cell phones and other personal items, while string bags with longer handles are favoured by students and school children for carrying books like a satchel. The greater mobility of people within the country has also resulted in experimentation with patterns and looping techniques that are considered typical of other provinces, but innovations result also from women creatively experimenting new designs and patterns, including in their repertoire new symbols referring to aspects of contemporary life, some of these quickly become popular and expert bilum makers are known to study a new pattern they have seen in the street in order to try reproducing it for themselves.

It is important to note that women in Papua New Guinea generally begin a new bilum with nothing but an idea in mind. They do not use sketches or plans. Before they start the looping, the women have made a decision about the desired size and design. They know the amount of yarn and the colours needed. When they choose a pattern they may refer to a known design, may have been inspired by another woman's bilum or they may invent a new style themselves.18

Among the popular designs looped into contemporary string bags are the cross and the Christmas tree as symbols of Christianity; the bird of paradise pattern from the national flag, often reproduced in the flag colours, indexes the wearer’s identity as a citizen of the independent state of Papua New Guinea, and is a popular item around national celebrations such as Independence Day, but other patterns are more specific references to the maker’s or wearer’s life, aspirations, and desires. These include designs such as kundu drum, referring to traditional dance festivals; computer and highway designs, relating to the wearer’s everyday work in ‘modern’ contemporary contexts.19 Also popular are string bag patterns incorporating written messages or slogans, which refer to a person’s affiliation to a specific cultural or religious group, province or sports team. Such inventiveness in devising new patterns to be looped into the string bags’ designs also helps the makers obviate some of the traditional restrictions on using the patterns belonging to specific clans or tribes.20

By examining bilums as media of self-presentation resulting from women’s desires and imaginings, Barbara Anderson carries into the present Mackenzie’s observation that their different styles have long given expression to categories of social difference; she argues that “growing inequality has introduced additional axes of distinction that are now woven into the bags: class, education, region, generation, urban/rural residence, and so on.”21 Processes of social change and the associated desires and opportunities for social mobility and self-expression are all involved in the vibrantly creative use made by women of customary techniques to express their interest for contemporary values such as freedom and mobility. Their “experiences of freedom and constraint, precarity and possibility, encourage the emergence of new shapes and styles that tease the edges of ‘traditional’ femininity”22.

The expressive potential of bilums has also been recognised by the inclusion of these artefacts as part of artistic exhibitions and performances in museums and art galleries, both in Papua New Guinea and abroad, part of a wider movement for the recognition of textiles, typically a female production, as art. The cultural significance of the different kinds of textiles produced by women throughout Oceania has been commented on by Annette Weiner, who described cloth as a metaphor for society.23 Heather E. Young Leslie, and Ping-Ann Addo have commented on hybridity and pragmatic creativity as a salient Pacific aesthetic, expressed in particular by contemporary textile artists throughout Oceania.

Contemporary Pacific textile artisans conjoin, blend and re- imagine key traditional practices and ideologies, producing and deploying alternative materials, meanings, and encodings. The resultant ‘hybridized’ products offer reflexive modes for dealing with the rapidly changing political and economic realities experienced by Pacific peoples over the last century. These are some of the characteristics of what some have identified as hybridity—a syncretism of essences, forms, and practices. … Pragmatic creativity is our term for a sense of willingness, an opportunistic investigation and awareness of the local environment, a perpetual openness to inspiration by the local, as it is applied in the production of artistic material. ‘Pragmatic creativity is a way of seeing, being in, and fashioning the world that is alert, flexible, pliable, open to modification, adaptation, re-adaptation and, yes, to hybridization.’24

The growing awareness of the artistic relevance of typically female productions in textile materials including bilum, is reflected in the inclusion of such artefacts in art galleries, museums exhibitions and events, which has become increasingly common since the 1990s.25 In 1999 a collective of widows from Goroka participated with a “continuous bilum weaving” to Michael Mel’s installation at the Third Asia Pacific Triennial, at the Queensland Art Gallery.26 Such designation of bilums as art is also sustained at the ‘grass roots’ level in Papua New Guinea where, writes Nicholas Garnier, several urban dwellers collect string bags from different provinces and different patterns not to wear or use as commodities, but to display in their homes like works of art.27 Further domestic recognition of the status of bilum work as an artistic endeavour was promoted by the ambitious Apa Kenge National Bilum project, coordinated by Dame Carol Kidu, Minister for Community Development and Nicolas Garnier, Director of the Alliance Francaise in Port Moresby and lecturer at the University of Papua New Guinea, with a group of women from the Morata settlement of Port Moresby, who agreed to cooperate in the looping of a “monumental” string bag to be displayed in the Grand Hall of the National Parliament building to complement the—mostly man made—artworks representing the diverse cultures of the unified nation of Papua New Guinea. Woven by seventeen women, the bilum colourfully loops together people from all the country, the centre piece is a large reproduction of the national flag, which is surrounded by smaller provincial flags. In Garnier’s own words,

This monumental bilum is an example of a modern creation deeply rooted in tradition. It illustrates the capacity of public institutions (a University and the Parliament) to initiate and acknowledge the creativity of women who live in particularly harsh conditions. It also shows that the creation of a monumental bilum, otherwise a modest artefact, by a group of women living in a neglected settlement of the capital city, could generate national pride and be taken as an example to demonstrate the talents of PNG citizens to the rest of the world.28

Before I finally turn to the invention and development of bilumwear as social and cultural fashion phenomenon, it is necessary to make another, this time historical, detour to provide the reader with some background to the changing dress styles in Papua New Guinea from colonial days to date.

A short history of colonial and postcolonial clothing in PNG

It is important to keep in mind the extreme diversity of indigenous cultures within Papua New Guinea, a variety of languages, customs and beliefs that is made even more diverse by the overlaying of different historical experiences of colonisation and Christian evangelisation by several different mission organizations. People in different parts of the nation have been contacted, colonised and evangelised at different historical times by colonialists and missionaries with ideas and worldviews that reflected their own cultural backgrounds. It is generally understood for example, that among the early missionaries, the Catholics were less concerned with eradicating traditional dances and costumes, while Lutheran and Methodist missionaries, emanating from the Victorian culture at home, invested more energy in covering and disciplining pagan, savage bodies by introducing garments that became indicators of a newly acquired identity as civilised convert.29 Particular emphasis was placed on the training of female converts to become good wives for the male converts and good mothers for future generations of native Christians. Such project of refashioning bodies was realised, among other things, by teaching women to sew and wear long, loose calico tops, which are now common throughout the country and are known as Meri blouses.30