Te Papa collecting the spirit of Hawai‘i

Detail of Aloha shirt by Malihini featuring Hawaiian mele (songs), c. 1950. This shirt belonged to Tommy Holmes. Te Papa.

Claire Regnault, Collecting the spirit of Hawai‘i through aloha shirts, Te Papa Blog, 12 December 2017

New Zealand and Pacific collections intern Sonya Withers and history curator Claire Regnault recently travelled to Hawai‘i where they collected 83 aloha shirts with a focus on indigenous Hawaiian designers. Claire Regnault reflects on the connection these designers have with their natural environment and how this inspires their designs.

Why aloha shirts?

In October, Sonya Withers and I travelled to Hawai‘i to work with Noelle Kahanu, a cultural specialist from University of Hawai‘i’s Public Humanities and Native Hawaiian Program, on a co-collecting project for the Pacific Cultures team.

Our aim was to work together to assemble a group of aloha shirts for Te Papa’s growing collection of Pacific-infused fashion. Why aloha shirts? Well, as Tommy Holmes (1945-1993), a founding member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and avid aloha shirt wearer, once observed:

“There is probably no better garment in the world that captures a land’s ‘spirit of place’. For half a century, the aloha shirt has been Hawai‘i’s most ensuring and visible greeter and ambassador – like a lei, the aloha shirt is worn as a statement of one’s love for, and connection to, a most special place.” (1)

Rather than developing a survey collection of aloha shirts throughout the decades, we chose to focus primarily on how Hawaiian culture has been represented through the aloha shirt, and on native Hawaiian designers who have reclaimed the aloha shirt as a canvas for communicating indigenous cultural values.

Prints with intent

In Hilo, we met Sig Zane, one of the ‘grandfathers’ of indigenous aloha shirt design. Sig’s design career began when he fell for Nalani Kanakaole, a hula dancer from a renowned family of cultural practitioners. He used pattern and print to woo her.

“I wanted to make gifts for her that no one else had. And so, I learnt silk screening… I started making these plant forms, because I knew that in hula, all these plants were important. So the liko, the very tips of the ohia plant were symbolic of new growth. And especially in a dancer, that means you are projecting the very best, the very tops of the plants, the maile to bind… So those became the first designs, because I wanted to gift her something that meant something.” (2)

Sig’s screen-prints worked their magic, and since the mid-1980s, he has crafted designs steeped in hula culture.

The importance of hula

Hula dancers, both male and female, are synonymous with the history of aloha shirts and also with Hilo, the home of Merrie Monarch, Hawai‘i’s annual hula competition. In his designs, Sig continues to focus on plants associated with hula, commenting:

‘The forest is an important part of hula. The ferns, trees, vines, leaves, and flowers are the embodiments of hula. As we gather each frond and leaf, we are taking the bodies of our deities. We honor and respect the greenery as we weave our lei and decorate our bodies. When we dance, we become the trees. We are the flowers. We are the ʻŌlapa.’ (3)

When we met with Sig he was wearing a shirt adorned with lehua blossoms – the flower of Laka, the goddess of the hula. Hula dancers traditionally wear lehua blossoms around their heads, wrists and ankles. The ʻōhiʻa lehua, which is also known as Pele’s flower or the fire tree, comes from the same family as our pohutukawa.

In Hawaiian mythology, ʻŌhiʻa and Lehua were lovers. Pele, the volcano goddess, however, was also in love with ʻŌhiʻa. When ʻŌhiʻa rejected her advances, Pele turned him into a tree. Out of pity, the other gods turned the distressed Lehua into a flower, and placed her upon the ʻōhiʻa tree. It is said that when a lehua flower is picked from the tree, the sky will fill with rain – the separated lovers’ tears. The ʻōhiʻa lehua is prevalent in the rainy, volcanic landscape surrounding Hilo.

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