Aloha shirt exhibit invites viewers to ponder history

David Bader is the perfect person to explain the appeal of aloha shirts.

Bader, a Tacoma-based aloha shirt collector, sported his first before he could form full sentences; his mother bought him a red shirt patterned with blooming orchids when he was 2 years old. Since then, Bader, now 63, has been fascinated by clothes.

He had the opportunity to share both a personal and cultural story of the aloha shirt with The News Tribune in July. One Friday morning, half an hour before the opening of the Washington State History Museum, Bader met with the newspaper and three employees of the Washington Historical Society at “Aloha shirt art”, a traveling exhibition that lives in Tacoma this summer. As he led the small party around some of his favorites from the 19 shirts on display, he recalled what first drew him to the attire.

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From July 1 through September 11, 2022, the Washington State History Museum presents the traveling exhibit The Art of the Aloha Shirt: Keoni of Hawaii, 1938–1951 and the work of John “Keoni” Meigs. Claire Grant cgrant@thenewstribune.com

“I’ve always loved the look,” he told The News Tribune as he explored the exhibit. As he spoke, Bader wore a half-buttoned blue and white patterned aloha shirt, something he had sewn himself, over a white T-shirt. “Men’s clothing has traditionally been very monochromatic and rather boring. Hawaiian shirts deviate from this.

Since childhood, Bader has explored ways to express his love of aloha shirts. He started collecting them when he was in elementary school and continued throughout his time at Mount Tahoma High School. When he accepted a job as an elementary school teacher at the Grant Center for the Expressive Arts, he instituted “Aloha Shirt Friday” and encouraged his students to come to school wearing them.

“I would always find ways to find shirts for my kids if they couldn’t afford them,” Bader said. “Usually about 70% [would participate]but some years they were really into it, and it was close to 100%.”

Now retired from Tacoma public schools and running a vintage textile shop in town, his enthusiasm has translated into an appreciation for an exhibit like the one at the museum. Mainly sourced from Dan Eskenazi’s collection and curated by Dale Hope, the shirts were created eight decades ago.

Celebrate an Aloha shirt icon

At the exhibit, he stopped at a fabric depicting a dozen men, each a few centimeters tall, using spears and fishing nets to hunt sea animals. All the action takes place in the foreground against a brown background shaded by a coffee laden with milk. Its buttons, Bader told the group, are likely made from bamboo or coconut shell.

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Two Aloha shirts on display at the Washington State History Museum created by John “Keoni” Meigs. Not only are the Aloha shirts in the museum, but also the original sketches, paintings, and different variations of the shirts that Meigs created, such as different color palettes and long and short-sleeved shirts. Claire Grant cgrant@thenewstribune.com

To the left of the folder were two framed artifacts: a sketch, strewn with a few small notes at the bottom, and a painting. Both use the same design as the shirt fabric.

Gwen Whiting, tour member and curator of the Washington Historical Society, explained that the artifacts were part of John “Keoni” Meigs’ creative process when he designed the shirt.

“It’s really special to have it plotted,” Whiting said. “You really don’t see that very often, especially in shirts that are almost 80 years old.

Almost all of the shirts on display were sketched, designed and sewn by Meigs. When he transplanted from California to Hawaii in the 1930s, historians believe Japanese women had just started reusing kimono fabric in men’s shirts, creating the world’s first aloha shirts.

Inspired by these garments and Tahitian art around the islands, Meigs drew and painted his own designs, reproduced the multicolored images on fabric and sewed them into shirts.

Today, nearly two decades after his death, he is considered one of the most influential figures in this art form.

“He was at the forefront of the industry,” Whiting said. “[He was] working with people on the island to bring his creations to life.

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At the Washington State History Museum, John “Keoni” Meigs’ Aloha shirts are on display along with color swatches, original sketches, and paintings created by Meigs. Claire Grant cgrant@thenewstribune.com

“Back when shirts were made…you had [on Hawaii] the indigenous peoples, you had the Europeans, the Japanese community, the Chinese community, the Filipinos [and] Korean communities, which are all gathered on this island. And the shirts reflect that.

think about the past in the present

A different shirt highlights a tension lurking in his work. Like the previous one, a Meigs aloha shirt hangs to the right of two accompanying objects. However, none of them were designed by Meigs. One is a painting he reproduced from a woodcut by Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin. It depicts some of Gauguin’s experiences in Tahiti, and it was the roadmap for the design of the shirt fabric.

The other is a blue poster, designed by Whiting. It projects the title, “What’s the difference between stylistic influence and cultural appropriation?” This is one of the few blue posters made by Whiting to add context to displays.

Meigs moved from the mainland to Hawaii and Gaugin from France to Tahiti. Both incorporated the ethnic traditions of groups neither belonged to in their creative works and portrayed the cultures through a Western lens. But, as Whiting wrote on his poster, Meigs and Gaugin were unaware of the pitfalls of cultural appropriation when they created their art.

“That’s one of the things we’ve offered throughout the exhibition to invite people to think, in what light do you view these works?” said Whittle. “There are questions, [but] there really is no answer to any of this.

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At the Washington State History Museum, John “Keoni” Meigs’ Aloha shirts are on display along with color swatches, original sketches, and paintings created by Meigs. Claire Grant cgrant@thenewstribune.com

“It’s tough,” Bader said. “I like to think of it as this idea of… communities coming together to create something beautiful. So that’s the only way I can think of it.

He plans to discuss these topics when he speaks at an August 18 event at the expo. In addition to Bader’s speech, the historical society has invited Washington State University professor emeritus Linda Bradley and cocktail historian Renée Cebula to give presentations related to aloha shirts.

While looking forward to other guest speakers, Bader hopes to see some of the now-adult elementary students who attended Aloha Shirt Friday decades ago.

“Since teaching in the community where I live, a lot of kids have become friends,” Bader said. “So I should probably see a lot here.”

‘The Art of the Aloha Shirt’

Where: Washington State Historical Museum

When: Now until September 11, 2022

Pricing: $14 for a museum ticket (available online or at reception)

Free Community Event August 18, 6-8 p.m.

This story was originally published August 9, 2022 5:00 a.m.

Allen Siegler is the education and breaking news reporter for The News Tribune. He first joined the newsroom as an intern in June 2022. Siegler is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill master’s in public health program and previously interned at the San Diego Union-Tribune. Email him at asiegler@thenewstribune.com

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