The exhibition Art of the Aloha Shirt: Keoni of Hawaii, 1938–51 opened July 1 at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma and will be on view through Sept. 11. Art of the Aloha Shirt explores the history, artistry, and production of Hawaii’s enduring fashion statement. The exhibition of 60 objects, including original textile artwork, production sketches and swatches, advertisements, and vintage shirts, tells the story of an early innovator, John "Keoni” Meigs, in an industry that has left an indelible mark on fashion in the United States and the world.
"Aloha shirts have been popular for decades. They’re a sign of the Pacific Island influence in the Pacific Northwest, and something everyone can relate to,” said Mary Mikel Stump, director of exhibitions and programs at the Washington State Historical Society. "We are delighted to bring this exhibition. It’s a fun way to learn more about Aloha shirt design, the textile industry and fashion history.”
Although many claim authorship, the exact origin of the Aloha shirt remains uncertain. The patterns of Polynesian tapa cloth, the colorful and bold floral designs of Tahitian pareau, and the sheer Japanese fabric used for making kimonos are often cited as some of the early stylistic influences of the shirt. Sometime in the late 1920s to the early 1930s, when Hawaii’s economy began to shift from an agricultural to a service-oriented economy and tourists started flying to Hawaii in ever-increasing numbers, the emphasis of the island clothing industry shifted from the production of work clothes to sports and casualwear. Combining the young islander’s love for colorful clothing with the tourist’s desire to bring home keepsakes of their holidays on the islands, the Aloha shirt enjoyed massive popularity, particularly after the conclusion of the Second World War.
In the history of the Aloha Shirt, there has been no more innovative merchandiser nor better self-promoter than "Keoni of Hawaii.” John "Keoni” Meigs ("Keoni” is Hawaiian for John) was a self-taught painter whose talent became known to the early shirt manufacturers in Honolulu. In 1938, he created his first designs, concentrating on Polynesian tapa patterns inspired by the originals he had studied at the local Bishop Museum.
One of the most innovative Island fabric artists, Keoni is credited with creating as many as 300 Aloha shirt designs. In Meigs’ words, "In a sense, Aloha shirts put Hawaii on the map. The first thing people did when they arrived was make a beeline for a department store to buy one. A lot of kooky things were designed, but I always tried to be a purist when it came to using motifs from Hawaiian sources.”
At 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 18, the History Museum will host a free event with special guests to celebrate the exhibition. Dr. Linda A. Bradley, Professor Emeritus at Washington State University, will lead a fun, fast-paced gallery tour. She will share an overview of the roots of Aloha attire and provide insight into the broader cultural and historical significance of this style. Local collector David Bader will share examples of aloha shirts from his extensive collection, while providing participants with deeper understanding of how the style has changed over time. And cocktail historian Rene Cebula will present "The Origins of Tiki: The Drinks Behind the Shirts.” Guests can enjoy a Hawaiian-inspired mocktail while they take in the stories at this event, held on Third Thursday with free admission from 3-8 p.m.
Art of the Aloha Shirt is curated by Dale Hope, a Hawaiian native and second generation veteran of the garment industry who authored the definitive book on the subject, The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands, in 2000. Much of the work draws from the collection of Dan Eskenazi, which offers viewers the opportunity to see Aloha shirts from a designer’s perspective, as well as excellent vintage examples of the finished product. Art of the Aloha Shirt is organized by ExhibitsUSA, a program of Mid-America Arts Alliance.
Bring your friends and family to enjoy this colorful exhibition and learn about the history of the vibrant shirts so many people love to wear. You can also see IN THE SPIRIT Contemporary Native Arts in the adjacent gallery. The Washington State History Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. See www.WashingtonHistory.org for details.
Exhibition: Art of the Aloha Shirt: Keoni of Hawaii, 1938–51
Location: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, WA, 98402
Runs: July 1 through Sept. 11, 2022
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Free admission for active duty military and up to 5 family members through Sept. 4!
Adult (age 18+) $14
Senior (age 65+) $11
Student (age 6-18) $11
Child (age 5 and under) FREE