Tag Archives: Hawaiian shirt

1940s Made in Hawaii Bathing Suit from Kahala

This recently acquired halter and shorts set sent me down a rabbit hole of Hawaiian textiles.  The beginnings of the Hawaiian shirt are a bit obscure, but the first ones were probably made from silk fabrics from Japan in the 1920s.  Most of them were made by small shops in small batches. The large scale manufacture of shirts from Hawaiian fabrics started in the mid 1930s.

My set was made by Kahala, one of the first companies to manufacture “Hawaiian” garments.  It was started in 1936 by Nat Norfleet and George Brangier, neither of whom was a native Hawaiian. Their company, Branfleet, was using the Kahala name and label by 1937.  From what I’ve been able to find out, women’s garments were not made until after World War II, but then clothing for women became a major part of their business.

It is possible that my set is actually a bathing suit. It is completely lined in cotton jersey.

What Norfleet and Brangier discovered was that men would buy a shirt made from their Hawaiian fabrics to wear while in Hawaii, but women would continue to wear their Kahala garments after returning home.  I’d say this was much better than today’s not so subtle brag of the souvenir tee shirt.  You could remind the neighbors of your Hawaiian trip while looking fabulous.

I don’t find a lot of older Hawaiian garments here in the Southeast. People here were much more likely to vacation in Florida, or if a little more affluent, Cuba. But from the few older Hawaiian shirts I have been able to closely examine, I can tell you that the fabric is very different from the newer rayons made in the 1980s up through the present time.  My set is rayon, but it is lightly textured, though smooth at the same time.

The button is made from coconut shell, and adds another layer of Hawaiian authenticity.

But the star of this set is the print.  The richness is achieved with the use of at least fourteen colors.  I especially love the light blue used with so much red.

According to my one and only book on Hawaiian shirts, the very earliest prints were tropical flowers and tapa cloth prints. Scenics like mine soon became popular as well.

The Hawaiian Shirt, by H. Thomas Steele, was one of the very first fashion books I bought.  I can remember looking through it in the local B. Dalton book store and trying to justify the purchase. It was published in 1984, so I’m sure it was shortly after than that I added this to my very small, but growing, fashion history library.



Filed under Collecting, Novelty Prints, Proper Clothing, Summer Sports

What I Didn’t Buy – Hawaiian Print Quilt

Flea market season is here, and with it, a new edition of What I Didn’t Buy.  You are looking at a pieced quilt top made of rectangles of 1940s rayon Hawaiian print fabric.  Things like this tend to stop me dead in my tracks, and so I was standing there with my mouth gaping open when the seller approached me.

She must have seen that “I can’t believe what I’m seeing”  look before, because she volunteered that she felt like the top was made from scraps from a sewing factory.  I just stood there thinking that yes, that was possible, but that it was also possible, and quite probable, that someone cut up several dozen 1940s Hawaiian shirts in order to make a quilt that was never even finished.

Look carefully, and you will see three different photo prints, several prints of tropical fish, prints with Hawaiian men fishing, sailboats, palm trees, and enough tropical flowers to open a wholesale flower business.  All I can say is that I hope the seller was right in her guess as to the quilt top’s origin.  Considering that there are so many different prints, perhaps that actually is the case.

But if the reverse is true, there can’t be a better case against the current trend of re-purposing.  I didn’t get the price of the quilt top, but the value of  the intact shirts would be in the thousands.   Just last year I sold one with tropical fish similar to one of the prints in the quilt top for $650.   So why would anyone cut up such valuable shirts?

I suspect it would have been made in the years after the shirts ceased to be fashionable, but before they were discovered to be cool.  In those years the shirts would just have been fabric, much in the same way the so much of the used clothing found on today’s secondary market is just considered to be the raw material for crafting projects.  Of course, the big difference is that the vintage rayon shirts were made out of a quality fabric, and were very well made, and 95% of the stuff found in thrift stores today is the total opposite.

So how does one figure out what may become valuable in the coming years?  I wish I had a crystal ball and could answer that question.  I never thought I’d see the day when young women were wanting to wear cheap poly dresses from the 1980s, but that has come to pass.  Of course they have to be chopped off in order to cut down on the dowdy factor!

One thing that I  see that desirable vintage items do have in common with one another is that regardless of fashion, they tend to look good on the proper body.   Look beyond current fashion, and think of the merits of the garment as it would look on the body.  A nicely structured 1950s rayon swimsuit is going to make a body look good regardless of what is being sold in the stores.  The same can be said for a  perfectly fitted rayon shirt from the 1940s.


Filed under I Didn't Buy...