Ancient Polynesians as well as Asians developed the custom of adorning each other with leis. In ancient times, Hawaiians wore leis to represent their ranks and their wealth as well as to signify royalty. The geography of the area, the religion of its people and the tradition of the hula were all associated with the leis that Hawaiians wore.
The most popular of all the lei varieties was the maile lei. This was made from a leaf-covered vine that had a sweet and spicy scent. This vine was draped around the neck and worn draping freely down to the waist. For chieftains and members of royalty, however, the Ilima was preferred. This was made from hundreds of delicate orange blossoms to make a full and lush lei. The famed Princess Kaiulani loved to wear the Pikake which was named after her peacocks. Its white flowers and its sweet scent of jasmine made it a classic among the many types of leis.
The history of lei making in Hawaii began when the Polynesians came to the islands and brought with them their traditions for adorning themselves with local vines and flowers. To honor their Gods, they made wreaths and arranged local plants on strings to decorate themselves. For their travels to these new and luscious islands, they brought with them many of the plants they needed for daily life. There were plants for medicinal use, plants for food and ginger plants that they brought for their sweet scent and their perfect use as a personal adornment.
As the Hawaiian islands were settled, from about 750 A.D. through the 14th century, the leis being used in the Polynesian region were quite similar to each other. There were the fragrant lei that were temporary because of their use of plants. But, there were many other items on these islands that could be fashioned into beautiful adornments. These includes the hala and maile lei. There were also lei that were nonperishable varieties that were not made from plants. These included the niho palaoa which was made of the bones of walruses and whales, the pupu which was made from shells and the hulu manu which was made from feathers.
Once the long voyages across the ocean ended and the Hawaiians were settled into their tropical land, they became culturally isolated. From the 1300s until 1778, they developed their own, unique culture and traditions that included the richest variety of leis that could be found in Polynesia. By fusing their island lifestyle with their sacred rituals and the nature that was so present around them, they created lei that were worn for virtually every occasion. The Lei were worn for everyday tasks, for celebrations and were worn by both commoners (maka`ainana) and chiefs (ali`i) alike.
Because leis were so prized for their beauty and their connection to Hawaiian culture, a stereotypical view of a colorful necklace eventually began. This gave rise to the plastic lei that is made from either plastic flowers, or perhaps more commonly, a spiral of thick plastic on a string. These leis don’t come with the fragrant smell of the flowers or the deep connection to Hawaiian culture and tradition that ones made of natural materials do. These plastic leis have contributed to a stereotypical view of what a lei is and what it’s like to wear one.