Exhibition Review(s): Hawaiian Fabric & Fashion

Since my trip to Hawaii last year, where I visited the Lyman Museum, I’ve become increasingly interested in Hawaiian history and their material culture. So when I had the chance to visit a more local exhibition covering a similar topic, I jumped at the chance.

The San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles current has three exhibitions on view in relation to Hawaiian fabric and textiles. They are Alfred Shaheen: Fabric to Fashion; Wendeanne Ke’aka Stitt: Contemporary Kapa and an unnamed Special Events Gallery showing of hand-stitched Hawaiian quilts. It should be noted here, that though it might appear that there were very few wall panels of text for any of the three shows – a gallery guide was available (to borrow and for sale – $.6.50) which filled in much of what was missing. It is well worth it to borrow the guide at the admissions desk, or to purchase one.

After paying our admission and entering the exhibition a friend and I stopped in the first gallery, where Wendeanne Ke’aka Stitt: Contemporary Kapa was on display. Theses are flat textiles made of various natural fibers. While at the Lyman museum in Hawaii, I learned that traditional Ka’pa cloth was:

“made from the mulberry tree, and then decorated by either block print, immersion dye, panting, overlay or cord snapping. ‘Plants, animals, and even dirt were ground in a stone mortar to get every color imaginable.'”

In this contemporary display, however, the pieces were made from a mix of local and Hawaiian materials including Black Walnut, Hawaiian red dirt, Queen of the Knight Black Tulips, and backyard Mulburries. When examining the cloth, one naturally wants to be able touch and feel the texture (especially the machine quilted ka’pa made with vintage cotton).  Happily, several samples of ka’pa cloth were provided – it’s a surprisingly soft fiber. Also much appreciated, was an in depth wall-panel that explained in detail how the cloth is made, with photographic examples. I had not realized that Ka’pa is the only bark cloth that goes through a fermentation process!

Moving through to the special exhibition gallery was an unnamed show of hand-sewn Hawaiian quilts. Small labels next to each beautifully done quilt named the artist, the date and materials used but didn’t provide much in the way of curatorial direction. Additional information on the meanings of the forms was provided in the gallery guide. Our favorites were the Red Giner and Plumeria with Maile Leis – both by Chieko Nakagawa.

One small quilt by Carol Kamaile, Chinese Money Tree, was the artists ‘first’ attempt to design and complete a Hawaiian quilt – it took her five years to complete.  I’m still trying to comprehend the skill and attention required by this extremely high-quality hand sewing.

Moving into Alfred Shaheen: Fabric to Fashion exhibit our mouths gaped and gasped at the colors of the textiles and fashion that lay before us. The exhibit seemed to flow beautifully through a rainbow of colors. Most examples dated to between the 1950s and 1960s though several garments from the 1980s were also included. Much ephemera, including advertisements, buttons, original hanging tags, and long beautiful bolts of vintage fabric.

If you like Mad Men at all, this exhibit is for you. Over and over again, the silhouette was the familiar, glamorous wasp waist of Betty Draper. New Look and wiggle dress silhouette’s abounded, in both dresses and swimwear. Men’s shirts and some children’s clothing were included as well.

It seems Shaheen was the cornerstone on which Hawaii’s garment industry was built (when he started his business there in the late 1940s). Much of the exhibit shows quite clearly the connections between East & West. The design of the garments include Watteau backs, Nehru collars, pagoda sleeves, sari-style draping, Chinese characters, as well as obvious inspiration from Egypt and India (especially in the later years). All this intermingles with what we now think of as traditional Hawaiian motifs – Plumeria, Hibiscus and other tropical flowers especially.

Shaheen apparently also sent his textile designers all over Asia and Polynesia to gather inspiration. The effect was an exotic look, that incorporated ethnic textiles and traditional techniques. I don’t want to give away too much here, and if you’re in the area I STRONGLY encourage a visit – you won’t be disappointed (so long as you get that gallery guide!)

I must, unfortunately, point out a few problems that proved too distracting to this otherwise enchanting experience. Most of these have primarily to do with the dressing of the garments, and to some degree the exhibition design. What wall panels were available were too long to hold a general museum-goers attention. Generally speaking, wall text shouldn’t be more than 300 words long, and the 2 or 3 panels that I saw were much, much longer than that. Given the sparseness elsewhere in the exhibit, the curator(s) could have spread their text out a bit more. I also found it frustrating to have to refer to a gallery guide, when an extended label would have worked nicely (and would have saved the museum money on photocopies).

Primarily though, my problem was the way the garments were displayed. Too often, garments were displayed on mannequins that were not the appropriate size (either too big or to small). To compensate for this, dressers folded and pinned dresses along side seams. Given the layout, and viewers ability to walk 360 degrees around a garment (a rare treat!) it would have been better if the design were uninterrupted.

It was particularly irritating on the pocketed yellow dress pictured above. The eye was naturally drawn to the pockets, but the dress was folded at the sides, stunting the effect and drawing the viewers attention to the problematic fit. Some of the smocked sundresses pulled at the back, indicating that they were also on incorrectly sized mannequins. So too were several of the floor length dresses folded along the back seam (when the interest was the back!)

My other issues with the exhibition related primarily to the use of plastics in the display. In some instances, I understood that they were trying to recreate a boutique look, as laid out by the Shaheen manual (a copy was provided at the exhibition). However, as you can see from the image above, the effect did a huge disservice to the clothing displayed and frankly, looked sloppy. It also emphasized the ’boutique’ or ‘shopping’ feel of the exhibition – a common enough problem when museums display garments. Having vintage Shaheen garments for sale in the gift shop didn’t help this problem either.

The use of plastic hangers to display the men’s Hawaiian shirts, and women’s bathing suits, in the gallery was unfortunate. It just looked unprofessional and too slap-dash for a professional museum to use this kind of display method. Objects displayed suspended from the ceiling seemed to be inviting patrons to touch the clothing, and frequently garments ended up touching each other, or other wall-mounted pieces.

Now, despite these shortcomings, I do think the Bay Area is lucky to have this exhibition on view. The clothes are luxurious and beautiful – especially the textile design. It is on view through August 8, in San Jose. These clothes are a rare treasure, and given the display techniques used, they aren’t likely to be around forever – so see them now while you can. For those not able to see the exhibition, here’s a brief slideshow of the exhibit:

*As an aside, collectors looking to obtain vintage Alfred Shaheen will find a surprisingly large selection on Etsy.

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  • fashiontheorist July 07, 2010 06.45 pm

    Oh, my. Having studied garment mounting for exhibition and materials for textile conservation, I’m a little saddened that a museum would treat an exhibited collection in such a manner. Pinning garments to fit or, worse yet, coaxing them over a too-large mannequin can do immense damage, as can gasses released from many plastics.

    Still, this looks like an amazing set of exhibitions. I became interested in Hawaii’s textile culture and history after encountering the Berg collection “Clothing the Pacific,” which is worth a read.

  • Heather July 07, 2010 07.20 pm

    I so appreciate your taking the time to read the review (rather than just looking at the photos)! I’ve seen some pretty bad display – quite a bit worse than this. If they are really bad, I just can’t bring myself to review them here – it just feels too mean. One of the things I failed to mention in this review was the lighting – it seemed to me to be a bit too bright for vintage textiles – but then, I’m not sure how to measure foot-candle strength on the fly. 🙂

    Thanks for the suggestion on Clothing the Pacific – sounds like a good book.

  • Quiltress July 14, 2010 01.24 am

    I am curious. This museum has a no photography policy. How did you manage to get such a comprehensive selection of images? Did you get permission from the museum? And the artists?

  • Heather Vaughan July 14, 2010 11.40 am


    Thanks so much for reading and supporting Wornthrough! The museum actually did have a posted photography policy inside their galleries. They requested that patrons help minimize the possibility of copyright infringement on the designs and textiles (I’m paraphrasing). To that end, when I took these photographs I tried to do mostly long shots, overviews of the gallery so that the idea of the exhibit was visible, without giving away the exact textile design. Credit is given to each artist when possible within the text of the review. The photography was also all executed by me, which I should have mentioned. The goal of this review was to offer a critical analysis of the review, but also to encourage people to visit the exhibition. Again, thanks for reading and supporting Wornthrough! We always welcome your comments.

  • Sandra @ DebutanteClothing July 16, 2010 11.03 am

    thanks for sharing your images with us. I’m contemplating taking a trip to the Bay area and paying the museum a visit. I really respect your honest opinions about the display techniques. I never really paid attention to the display of garments in museums, often mesmerized by the garments themselves, until I joined The Costume Society of America. Now I am very aware of how the proper display really enhances the experience, but also how it maintains the life of the garment.

    Thanks again!

  • Worn Through » Fashion Bytes
    April 19, 2011 - 1:24 pm

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