John “Keoni” Meigs, painting for Waikiki Reef, c. late 1940s; gouache on paper, 24 x 30 inches; © Keoni Collection.
Aloha to Fashion
Earlier this year, the Texas A&M University Stark Galleries hosted Art of the Aloha Shirt: Keoni of Hawaii, 1938-51, an exhibition exploring Hawaii’s enduring fashion statement: the Aloha shirt. The exhibition was a program of ExhibitsUSA, a national division of Mid-America Arts Alliance with The Texas Commission on the Arts and The National Endowment for the Arts.
It featured original textile artwork, production sketches and swatches, advertisements and vintage shirts that showcased the story of the late John “Keoni” Meigs. A self-taught painter, he manufactured his first creations in 1938 and is credited with producing as many as 300 Aloha shirt designs.
“In a sense, Aloha shirts put Hawaii on the map,” Meigs said once. “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.”
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 Meigs’ early stylistic influences of the shirt.