Image: Painting for Waikiki Reef, John “Keoni” Meigs, c. late 1940s; gouache on paper, 24 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the Keoni Collection

Who first created the Aloha Shirt? The origins are unclear – and while Art of the Aloha Shirt: Keoni of Hawaii, 1938-1951, currently on display at the Washington State Museum in Tacoma does not answer that question, it does offer the opportunity for visitors to explore that answer. This exhibition, curated by Dale Hope, highlights the story of the eclectic John Liggett “Keoni” Meigs, an innovative, self-taught artist and painter, and his vibrant collection of illustrative, Aloha Shirts that he designed during his time in Hawaii. 

A prolific artist, he created over 300 designs between 1938-1951. His designs reflected his experience of living in Hawaii and the expansive amount of inspiration around him. Known as “Keoni” (John in Hawaiian), his designs showcased Hawaiian culture, floral motifs, and island life. Tropical flowers such as hibiscus, plumeria, and bird of paradise are recognizable in the fabric swatches, as well as other items associated with the Hawaiian islands, like cowrie shells and hula dancers. 

Along with shirts that were inspired by Hawai’i and its culture, some shirts draw inspiration from French Polynesia and Paul Gauguin’s Noa Noa. While there are plenty of tropical floral motifs to be seen (which is what most people assumably equate with Aloha Shirts) there is a handful that features distinctly unique designs. One shirt, in particular, inspired by Gauguin’s Noa Noa, features a graphic, woodblock pattern with bold colors that challenge the question, “What is an Aloha Shirt?” Another shirt, in contrast, feels more subtly designed – lighter colors, and more breathing room throughout the pattern (which features French text in yellow, and various artifacts like wooden war clubs and feather helmets). 

Paired with some of the Aloha Shirts are preliminary sketches and swatches taken from Meigs’ scrapbooks, which provide some additional insight into his creative thought process before the designs are translated into fabric, including how he structured repeating patterns. Known to be a great self-promoter and recorder of his career, there are also newspaper clippings and advertisements that Meigs scrapbooked. 

While the exhibition features Meigs’ innovative approach to design, it does call into question whether his designs were culturally influenced, or appropriated. His designs reflect a specific perspective of Hawai’i, which was romanticized, and rooted in a specific time and place. His designs were then consumed by tourists looking to bring a keepsake home from their travels. The exhibited Aloha Shirts do a fine job at capturing the spirit of Hawai’i from the perspective of someone who left their home to create a new life for themselves in a new, exotic place. That said, it is unclear if relationships were created between Meigs’ and Hawai’i locals to support his understanding in how Hawai’i is being depicted through his designs. 

Art of the Aloha Shirt: Keoni of Hawaii, 1938-1951 is currently on display through September 11th at Washington State History Museum, located at 1911 Pacific Ave, Tacoma, WA 98402. For more information, visit www.washingtonhistory.org 

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