Nothing says aloha like a lei. A simple strand of flowers worn around the neck or crowning one’s hair has become the islands’ most heartfelt (and fragrant) way to celebrate and show someone affection. Once the province of hula dancers and professional lei shops, at least when it came to crafting them, a new set of local makers are taking the practice into their own hands—reimagining the aesthetics and politics of the lei along the way. Below, we dive deep into the indigenous craft’s history and unspoken customs every visitor should know.
A Gift to the Gods Becomes a Gesture of Affection
First brought by Polynesian settlers, “the tradition of lei-making served as a means of giving gifts to the gods,” explains Honolulu-based lei maker Meleana Estes. Ancient Hawaiians continued the practice for hula, social rank, adornment, and religious purposes. “A lot of them were very simple, used for symbolic purposes,” says legendary lei maker Bill Char of the lei’s aesthetic and reason for being back then.
Modern lei culture as the world knows it today—think Elvis in an Aloha shirt, strumming a ukulele, and wearing a lei—started in the 1930s, when tourists would come to the islands by steamship. At the harbor, they would be given big, blooming flower lei upon arrival (which also explains the joke, “I was lei’d in Hawaii!”). From there it became a commercial enterprise, with lei shops popping up around Honolulu’s Chinatown, and customary for locals to give lei on celebratory occasions.
Today lei are given for many reasons. Some are festive and momentous, like graduations or weddings or funerals. Others are more everyday, like birthdays or good news. “Any occasion you want to share love in that way, it’s in our tradition to give lei,” says Estes, hinting there are no formal rules. “It’s our ultimate expression and embodiment of Aloha.”
Looking for a Lei? Common Types to Know
Lei draped around the neck are typically what’s known as lei kui. (Kui meaning to string pierced objects like flowers, seeds, or shells.) The style became popularized in the ’30s with tourism and endures today. Anything crowning the head is lei po’o. Haku, meaning to weave, is a technique of making a lei po’o—but locals commonly use the word to refer to any head lei, so feel free to use them interchangeably.
Ancient Hawaiians used materials such as bone, carved wood, shell, and the ribs of coconut palm in addition to local flora for their lei. Hawai‘i residents have been known to grow plumeria, puakenikeni, and pakalana vines to create homemade ones. Common flower shop lei, which can be found in Honolulu’s Chinatown, include carnations (which are vibrant and thick), ginger (exquisitely woven and almost lace collar-like) and tuberose (delicately simple and sweetly scented).
If you’re heading to a specific occasion, maile lei, made from a verdant, fragrant vine that’s in increasingly short supply from overcommercialization, are frequently given at graduations or weddings; hala, which is strung from the plant’s blazing-orange fruit that’s been carved, are often bestowed at funerals; and pikake, an elegant pearl-like, aromatic flower, is the lei of choice for brides.
Bumbai You Learn*: Unspoken Customs
** A local pidgin phrase meaning, “Someday you’ll learn.”
Because unintentional offenses are the worst, a few unspoken customs to giving, receiving, and returning the lei to the earth, just like a local. Typically, the lei giver places the lei over the recipient’s head, then gives a hug and honi (or kiss) on the cheek. In Covid times, it’s more likely that the recipient would lei themselves, which some locals say is the proper manner to bestow a lei. For women who are hapai (pregnant), the lei should be worn open so as to not interrupt the flow of life between them and the umbilical cord.
The custom of receiving is to accept the lei, and never hand it away to someone else. “Don’t take your lei off because a lei represents your mana, your spirit, [and] is already part of this lei,” explains Char. Although Estes says that during big celebrations, like graduations, where lei can often reach one’s forehead, “If you’re given a lei and share it with someone else, more aloha is being shared.”
Most important is to never throw lei away. Maui-based lei maker Lauren Shearer says lei should be dried and kept for a year before disposal. After that timeframe (or earlier, if you must), any synthetic parts or string should be removed and the natural parts, so long as they aren’t invasive, should be “put back into the earth or ocean to come full circle like the lei,” says Shearer.
Foragers and Culture Keepers: Hawaii’s Modern Lei Makers
Recently there’s been a renaissance in lei making. Many locals are taking the craft into their own hands, making bespoke creations that turn heads. Far from being a purely aesthetic movement, however, these makers emphasize technique—often teaching others through in-person workshops, online tutorials, or even DIY lei kits—and materials as a means to appreciate, protect, and bring awareness to Hawai‘i’s environment.
Shearer, who is behind @hawaiiflorafauna, hand forages everything from fresh flowers to seeds and even invasive plant species for her minimal-but-vibrant lei. Her methodology is a quiet kind of environmental activism that highlights the scarcity of native Hawaiian plants and impact of invasives in an artistic manner. Estes, also known as @meleana_hawaii, continues her family tradition of lei making (her tutu, grandmother, was a famous lei maker), specializing in haku that are colorful, made for the wearer, and composed of consciously gathered materials. Floral artist @ocean_dreamerr makes feminine, unapologetically bold creations. And @hakuleilani weaves gorgeous, traditional pāpale (hats) from coconut fronds in addition to her bespoke haku and lei.
Not only are these makers keeping the artform alive, they’re turning lei from a ceremonial or symbolic craft into more everyday fashion. “More people want to adorn themselves with flowers,” explains Estes of haku’s rise in popularity, although she gives partial credit to Coachella’s flower crown trend. Scherer also cites the resurgence of Hawaiian language and culture as leading to a “resurgence in nature and using what’s around us.” And while Hawaii hasn’t reached the point where people are making lei to match their outfits or to wear to work just because, “Hopefully they will be soon,” Shearer says.
Now Get Yourself Leid
Even if you’re far from Hawai‘i, a simple lei can be made at home using a needle, thread, and some store-bought blooms. Only here’s a pro tip: “Never put the lei on yourself beforehand,” Shearer explains. This preserves the lei to take on the energy of its intended recipient.
Should you choose to forage for flora near your home, it’s Hawaiian custom to thank the ‘āina (land), gods, and hands which cultivated it for anything you take. Equally important is to mālama, or care for the land, meaning you should clean any trees or ferns that provide lei material at the same time.
How to Make a Simple Lei Kui
1 lei needle
~48” string with room to tie
30-60 carnations, daisies, or marigolds (destemmed)
- Thread string through the needle, knot the end
- String the flowers in one direction, usually through the center of the flower and out the stem. Although you can also switch up the flower direction or pierce the flower through the side of the stem (so it hangs up or down) for an asymmetrical aesthetic
- Tie the ends together, and share with aloha
Alexis Cheung is a Honolulu-born, New York City-based writer. Her articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, T Magazine, Vanity Fair, the Cut, Elle.com, the Believer, among other publications.