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


  • Elisabetta Gnecchi-Ruscone Università di Milano Bicocca



bilumwear, string bags, women, contemporary identities, fashion


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.


Anderson, Barbara. “Style and self-making: String bag production in the Papua New Guinea Highlands.” Anthropology Today, vol. 31, no. 5 (October 2015): 15–20.

Bell, Joshua and Haidy Geismar. “Materialising Oceania: New ethnographies of things in Melanesia and Polynesia.” The Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol. 20 (2009): 3–27.

Bolton, Lissant. “Gender, status and introduced clothing in Vanuatu.” In Clothing the Pacific, edited by Chloe Colchester, 119–39. Oxford: Berg, 2003.

Choulai, Wendi and Jacqelyn Lewis Harris. “Women and the fibre arts of Papua New Guinea.” In Art and Preformance in Oceania, edited by Barry Craig, Berrie Kernot and Christopher Anderson, 211–7. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999.

Cochrane, Susan. Becoming art: some relationships between Pacific art and Western culture. Doctor of Philosophy thesis. Wollongong: University of Wollongong, 1995,

Cochrane, Susan. “Bilong Ol Meri (For All Women): the New Guinea Bilum.” Kunapipi, vol. 27, no. 2 (2005),

Cochrane, Susan. “Bilum breakout: fashion, artworld, national pride.” Artlink, vol 29, no. 2 (2009): 62–5,

Cummings, Maggie. “Looking Good: The cultural politics of island dress for young women in Vanuatu.” The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 25, no. 1 (2013): 33–65.

Drooglever, Pieter. An Act of Free Choice: Decolonisation and the Right to Self-Determination in West Papua. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2009.

Eves, Richard. “Colonialism, Corporeality and Character: Methodist Missions and the Refashioning of Bodies in the Pacific.” History and Anthropology, vol. 10, no. 1 (November 1996), 85–138.

Favole, Adriano. Oceania: isole di creatività culturale. Bari: Laterza, 2010.

Garnier, Nicolas. “Fashion and Bilum, from Tradition to Modernity, from Individual Creation to Collective Achievement.” In Hailans to Ailans, Contemporary Art of Papua New Guinea Art, edited by Pamela Rosi. Victoria: Alcheringa Gallery, London: Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, 2009.

Garnier, Nicolas. “The Apa Kenge National Bilum.” iconophilia (April 8, 2011),

Gell, Alfred. Metamorphosis of the Cassowaries: Umeda society, language and ritual. London: University of London Atlone Press, 1975.

Gnecchi Ruscone, Elisabetta. “Parallel Journeys in Korafe Women’s Laments (Oro Province, Papua New Guinea).” Journal de la Société des Océanistes, vol. 124, no. 1 (2007): 21–32.

Gnecchi Ruscone, Elisabetta. “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 Anna Karina Hermkens and Katherine Lepani. Canberra: ANU Press, 2017.

Hauser-Schaublin, Brigitta. “The Thrill of the Line, the String, and the Frond, or why the Abelam are a Non-cloth Culture.” Oceania, vol. 67, no. 20 (1996): 81–106.

Jolly, Margaret. “Saturated History of Christianity and Cloth.” In Divine Domesticities: Christian Paradoxes in Asia and the Pacific, edited by Hyaeweol Choi and Margaret Jolly, 429–54. Canberra: ANU Press, 2014.

Keane, Webb. “The hazards of new clothes. What makes signs possible.” In The art of clothing: a Pacific experience, edited by Susanne Kuechler and Graeme Were, 1–16. London: UCL Press, 2005.

Knapp, Regina. “Netting and Networking: String Bags from the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.” Baessler-Archiv, no. 60 (2012): 121–51.

Kuechler, Susanne and Graeme Were. “The Social World of Cloth in the Pacific Islands.” In Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, vol. 7, edited by Margaret Maynard: 381–85. Oxford: Berg, 2010.

Lewis-Harris, Jacqueline. The Motu Koita of Papua New Guinea. Berg Encyclopedia of Costume,

MacCarthy, Michelle. “The morality of mweki: Performing sexuality in the ‘Islands of Love’.” The Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol. 27 (2016): 147–67.

MacKenzie, Maureen. Androgynous Objects: String bags and gender in central New Guinea. Melbourne: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1991.

McDougall, Ruth. “A View from Elsewhere. A Global Stage — Curating Textiles from the Asia Pacific.” In The Handbook of Textile Culture, edited by Janis Jeffries, Diana Wood Conroy and Hazel Clark. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.

Mel, Michael. “Bilas: Dressing the Body in Papua New Guinea.” In Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, vol. 7, edited by Margaret Maynard, 451–9. Oxford: Berg, 2010.

Paini, Anna. “Rhabiller les symboles: les femmes kanak et la robe mission à Lifou (Nouvelle Calédonie).” Journal de la Société des Océanistes, vol. 117 (2003): 233–53.

Paini, Anna. “Risemantizzare vecchi e nuovi simboli: Robe mission e imprenditorialità delle donne kanak (Nuova Caledonia).” In Antropologia dell’Oceania, edited by Elisabetta Gnecchi Ruscone and Anna Paini, 237–63. Milano: Raffaello Cortina Editore, 2009.

Paini, Anna. “Re-dressing Materiality: Robes Mission from ‘Colonial’ to ‘Cultural’ Object, and Entrepreneurship of Kanak Women in Lifou.” In Tides of Innovation in Oceania: Value, Materiality and Place, edited by Elisabetta Gnecchi Ruscone and Anna Paini, 139–79. Canberra: ANU Press, 2017.

Rankin, Robyn. “The Beauty of Bilumwear.” Lily Magazine, 2014.

Searle, Ross. “Weaving the Old with the New: Textile Art Forms in Niugini.” Artlink, (December 1996): 16–4,

Spark, Ceridwen. “Changing Lives.” Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 25, no. 63, (2010): 17–30.

Spark, Ceridwen. “An Oceanic Revolution? Stella and the Construction of New Femininities in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific.” The Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol. 5, no. 1 (2014): 54–72.

Spark, Ceridwen. “Working Out What to Wear In Papua New Guinea: The Politics of Fashion in Stella.” The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 27, no. 1 (2015): 39–70.

Strathern, Marylin. “Artifacts of History, Events and the Interpretation of History.” In Culture and History in the Pacific, edited by Jukka Siikala, 157–78. Helsinki: Finnish Anthropological Society, 1990.

Tove Stella, Regis. Imagining the Other: the Representation of the Papua New Guinean Other. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007.

Wardlow, Holly. Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society. Oakland: University of California Press, 2006.

Weiner, Annette. “Why Cloth? Wealth, Gender and Power in Oceania.” In Cloth and Human Experience, edited by Annette Weiner and Jane Schneider, 37–72. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Wolfers, Edward. Race Relations and Colonial Rule in Papua New Guinea. Sydney: Australia and New Zealand Book Company, 1975.

Young Leslie, Heather and Ping-Ann Addo. “Hybridity and Pragmatic Creativity.” Pacific Arts, vol. 3–5 (2007): 12–21.




How to Cite

Gnecchi-Ruscone, E. (2019). Bilum, Bilas, Bilumwear: PNG Women Loop Stylish Dresses to Create New Identities. ZoneModa Journal, 9(2), 47–69.