Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Shirt That Made The Men

A sad passing was noted in yesterday's Wall Street Journal (sub req):

Elvis wasn't the only one wearing the wild-style shirts that signified everything from Hawaiian ethnicity to surfer cool to casual Friday. Frank Sinatra wore one in "From Here to Eternity," and Tom Selleck wore one in "Magnum PI." More recently, Hawaiian native President Barack Obama has been photographed in aloha shirts, and so has the Rev. Rick Warren, who gave the inaugural invocation.

As the dean of Hawaiian couture, Mr. Shaheen, who died Dec. 22 at age 86, not only dressed Hollywood stars and surfers in his aloha shirts (an island industry term for what the rest of the world calls Hawaiian shirts), he also was famed for his women's wear, sold at department-store boutiques nationwide.

Like much of Hawaiian culture, Mr. Shaheen was an import to the islands. Of Lebanese heritage, he grew up in New Jersey, where his family owned textile mills. He was a decorated fighter pilot in the European theater during World War II, and after the war followed his family to Hawaii, where they had relocated.

In 1948, he started manufacturing rayon Hawaiian shirts in a Quonset hut left over from the war, with four seamstresses taught by his mother. As the business expanded from shirts to dresses, Mr. Shaheen hired native and Japanese designers to create lush textile prints based on patterns from Hawaii, other islands and Japan. He often included a brochure with each garment describing where the fabric design came from.

"He wanted his designers to bring in ethnic images from around the world, because he saw Hawaii as a melting pot," says Linda B. Arthur, author of "The Art of the Aloha Shirt."

No word on what Mr. Shaheen will be wearing as he's laid to rest, but it's not hard to guess. Hawaiian shirt lovers everywhere (like Sisyphus) will no doubt be honoring his memory by donning their favorite version of the classic. The obit also notes that some credit the spread of the Hawaiian shirt to the mainland as the reason for casual Fridays in the workplace. R.I.P.

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