PULLMAN, Wash. – When Hawaiian clothing designer and producer Alfred Shaheen died in late 2008, news stories appeared around the world about his role in popularizing aloha print clothing internationally.
Now, Washington State University’s Apparel Merchandising, Design and Textiles Department is putting its aloha shirt collection on public display. It is one of only two such collections in the western U.S., and the only one in the Pacific Northwest, according to AMDT professor Linda Arthur, curator of the department’s historic costume collection.
The exhibit can be viewed at the WSU Compton Union Building on the Pullman campus in the CUB gallery through Sept. 30.
According to Arthur, who specializes in the connections between clothing and culture, aloha shirts and fabrics are a unifying symbol for the ethnically diverse population of the Hawaiian Islands.
“Ethnic Hawaiians make up less than 20 percent of the population and there is no dominant ethnic group,” Arthur said. “It’s clear that the roots of the aloha shirt are in the multi-ethnic community from which it originated, a population comprised of Japanese, Chinese, Samoans, Portuguese, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, Filipinos, and a variety of Caucasian ethnic backgrounds.”
As immigrants came to Hawaii starting in the mid-nineteenth century, bringing woven fabric with them, they brought a variety of style and design elements from their native cultures, all of which contributed to the uniquely Hawaiian shirts and fabrics.
According to Arthur, the AMDT exhibit showcases design motifs from Hawaii, China, Japan, Indonesia, Hawaii, Samoa, and Tahiti. While some prints use classical motifs from the various cultures, others have taken liberties with traditional designs. The exhibit includes a few vintage Alfred Shaheen shirts as well as some of his textiles.
Arthur is internationally recognized for her study and writing on Hawaiian textiles, and began adding them to AMDT’s historic costume collection when she came to WSU from the University of Hawaii in 2002. Because of her reputation, and publicity about her work with Shaheen, the collection has been receiving donations of Aloha shirts, including several recently from a WSU employee.
Aloha shirts came into modern popularity when military personnel brought them home after being stationed in the Pacific during World War II. Alfred Shaheen seized on the popularity of the colorful prints, creating a textile and clothing manufacturing industry in Hawaii to meet international demand.
“Before Shaheen came along, there was no Hawaiian garment industry,” Arthur said. “There were mom and pop stores but no real modern industry.”