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Aloha Attire

A new show at San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles highlights the colorful Hawaiian fashions of Alfred Shaheen

WHEN MOST people think “Hawaiian fashion,” they think Tommy Bahama: loud, obnoxious hibiscus-laden printed shirts, the sort of thing dads wear while golfing in Florida.

The truth is, however, that Hawaiian prints and textiles actually have a long and storied history of fusing design from multiple cultures. The evolution of the Hawaiian aesthetic is the subject of the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles’ new exhibit, “Hawaii’s Alfred Shaheen: Fabric to Fashion.”

In the late 1950s, designer Alfred Shaheen was perhaps one of the best-known ambassadors of Polynesia in the West. His vibrant, original cotton prints have become the signature of “Aloha style”—including the aforementioned flowery men’s Hawaiian shirt. A plethora of his early signature pieces are on display in the exhibit, illustrating the wide range in themes and styles Shaheen’s company has became famous for.

Most of Shaheen’s frocks look like the sort of thing Elvis Presley’s girlfriend would wear in Blue Hawaii: full-shirted, pointy-bodiced, cinched-waisted creations that scream late-’50s, early-’60s style.

It’s no wonder that most of Shaheen’s clothing are made entirely from cotton—as anyone who has tried to wear synthetic fabrics in the Hawaiian humidity knows, breathable cotton and other natural fibers are the only option when traveling in the South Pacific.

Though most of the collection predates the love-child era, many of the Shaheen’s striking prints take on a swirly, psychedelic quality. Though born in Lebanon, Shaheen himself was a huge enthusiast of his adopted island’s culture, and many of his textiles seem to reflect this love of the 50th state. He frequently paid homage to Hawaii’s large Asian community by incorporating traditional Japanese and Chinese motifs into his fabrics, from kimono-styling details and mandarin collars to Arabic-writing and even East Indian paisley.

Perhaps the most striking piece of the Shaheen exhibit is a bolt of hanging cotton fabric labeled simply “Kilauea.” Featuring a large, bold, churning print of tomato reds, blacks, neon oranges and yellows, the fiery textile re-creates the hot molten lava of the Big Island’s active volcano. Though principally just a piece of fabric, the outstanding print interpretation of one of Hawaii’s most sacred landmarks would rival even a traditional artist’s rendering.

Another standout piece is “Hapu’u Forest.” Though simple, the hanging textile’s gorgeous green, brown and white print re-creates the jagged, fern-covered volcanic mountains of the Hawaiian landscape to a T.

Though Shaheen’s creations are the centerpiece of the new exhibit, the textile museum is also featuring two smaller installations showing traditional Hawaiian quilts, as well as a small selection of kapa, the handmade bark fabric of the Hawaiian people.

San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles
Hawaii’s Alfred Shaheen: Fabric to Fashion
Runs thru Aug. 8