Hawaii’s Alfred Shaheen:
Fabric to Fashion

October 7, 2010 – March 13, 2011 

Main Floor Gallery 

Free with Museum admission

Alfred Shaheen: Fabric to Fashion

Tahitian Girl dress

Colorful, short-sleeved men’s shirts with bold, tropical-themed prints are ubiquitous today in mainstream America. However, in the mid-20th century, such garments were treasured souvenirs, “aloha wear” brought back from Hawaiian vacations and unavailable on the U.S. mainland. So fashionable were they that Elvis Presley wore a Hawaiian shirt on the cover of his 1961 LP, the soundtrack to one of his most successful films ever, Blue Hawaii. That shirt was created by Alfred Shaheen

What The King and all those tourists didn’t know about these shirts, and the Asian-inspired women’s and children’s wear also being produced by Shaheen (1922-2008) in Hawaii, were the design and technical innovations they represented. Shaheen, a Lebanese American and an engineer by training, consolidated textile design, production and apparel manufacturing under one roof, becoming a creative master of these crafts and reaching new levels of artistry and achievement. 

Alfred ShaheenAt the same time, he revitalized the Pacific Island/Asian textile traditions and forged a fashion/design aesthetic representing both the transnational culture of Hawaii and a broader, West Coast “American” lifestyle that is informal, environmentally aware and multicultural. 

The Arab American National Museum proudly presents Hawaii’s Alfred Shaheen: Fabric to Fashion, the first major retrospective exhibition of Hawaiian textiles and “aloha wear” manufactured by Shaheen on the island of Oahu over a 40-year period. Dozens of samples of Shaheen textiles and garments are augmented by archival photographs and advertising that illuminate his design, manufacture and marketing techniques. The exhibition was created by the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles (SJMQT) in collaboration with Shaheen’s daughter, Camille Shaheen-Tunberg. 

“Hawaiian textile art, especially designs from the 1940s and 50s, have a quality unsurpassed in other decades,” says Hawaiian textile scholar Dr. Linda Arthur, who co-curated the original exhibition with Deborah Corsini, an SJMQT curator. 

Hawaiian Garden shirt“Shaheen championed the idea of using Hawaiian textile art as a means of expressing ethnicity and, as an innovative businessman, employed artists as salaried employees and was the first to use modern fashion promotion and marketing on the Islands.”

For his “City of Craftsmen,” Shaheen pioneered a silk-screening method; hired employees of Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese and other ethnicities; gave them professional training and then mined the visual iconography of Hawaii’s multi-ethnic community to create a new design aesthetic.

The results, as seen in the exhibition, are garments with an exuberant profusion of color, pattern and sophisticated compositions that capture the lushness of a tropical climate and the spirit of Pacific Island culture. Rare early Shaheen garments remain highly desirable among collectors of vintage textiles and fashions, while later designs are in greater supply and more reasonably priced on online auction sites.

Photos - Top Left: Tahitian Girl dress; Middle Right: Alfred Shaheen; Bottom Left: Hawaiian Garden shirt

Click HERE to read more about Alfred Shaheen.

This exhibition is made possible in part by

13624 Michigan Avenue, Dearborn, MI 48126 - Phone (313) 582-AANM (2266) A Project of ACCESS