One of the assignments for my conservation class this past quarter was a curatorial case study presentation on an object. I selected an Alfred Shaheen dress from my collection of 1940s-1950s Hawaiian garments. Getting to work on a project using subject matter so near and dear to my heart was a pretty fantastic experience (and I got an A+ on my presentation!). But even more fantastical was getting to work with Alfred Shaheen’s daughter, Camille, who kindly answered my inquiry for background information on the fabric design. The original name of the fabric has been lost over the years, but she dubbed the print Melia, which means “plumeria lei” in Hawaiian. She gave me access to a treasure trove of unpublished archival photos, and introduced me via email to Linda Arthur, a textile curator and author of The Art of the Aloha Shirt. I also got the inside scoop on a very exciting, not-yet-announced project on which they’re collaborating.
Learning more about the craftsmanship and the sheer labor of love that went into designing these fabrics and garments really reaffirmed my appreciation for the handful of Shaheens in my own collection—these dresses are truly works of art. Turns out Mr. Shaheen didn’t just revolutionize the Hawaiian garment industry—he was also a stickler for cultural authenticity, and wanted Shaheen garments to be a celebration of Hawaii’s diversity. For more on Alfred Shaheen, visit the official web site or this photo tribute from TIME magazine.