By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
John Meigs stands among the shirts to be displayed in an exhibit of his classic aloha-wear designs
John Meig's classic Keoni designs made him the master in the world of aloha shirt fashionsBy Burl Burlingame
When pressed to define the long-lasting appeal of the aloha shirt, Hawaiian kitschmeister Desoto Brown quotes someone else. "It was probably Arthur Godfrey or somebody like that who said it best - an aloha shirt is like a post card you can wear."
Advances in textile printing and colorfast inks during the 1920s meant that brightly patterned "aloha" wear could carve a niche market in Hawaii, and tourists discovered the clothing. It made for an ideal souvenir of their stay. By the late '30s, Hollywood and glamour magazines glommed on to aloha wear, and suddenly there was a boom market.
In late 1937, John MacMillan, a young Honolulu Star-Bulletin farm reporter who dabbled in design on the side, found he had a talent for bold, memorable aloha designs. Called "Keoni" by his friends, his work defined aloha wear to this day.
"Keoni of Hawaii: Aloha Shirt Designs 1938-1951," a new exhibit at the Graphic Arts Gallery of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, showcases his work. "He's a very significant element in the history of aloha wear," defines Brown. "Among silkie collectors, his stuff is venerated. It's extremely appealing in his choices of subject, color and execution. It's also rare that anyone from that period is even known today, but Keoni defines the 'classic' aloha shirt."
By the by, even though he's known in Hawaii as "Keoni" and in newspaper bylines as "John MacMillan," his actual name in John Meigs, and he's a recognized landscape artist and a charming, cowboy-hat-wearing old gent who's "creeping up on 82."
"After the Pearl Harbor attack, I joined the Navy, and so I had to send for my birth certificate."
Meigs learned from the woman that he thought was his mother that he had been kidnapped by his father, who changed his name to MacMillan. Meigs was his real name. Even so, it was no soap for the Navy, who insisted that he be called MacMillan for the duration. After an eventful tour as a gunner's mate - shelled by Japanese submarines off Palmyra, torpedoed off Guadacanal - he reinstated Meigs after the war.
Good thing he had "Keoni" as a back-up.
During the war, Sears, JC Penney and other notable mail-order catalogs had started carrying aloha wear. "It's hard to imagine today the effect of that on a product," said Brown. "These catalogs were hugely read. Being carried by Sears made aloha-wear a national phenomenon."
As a copy hustler for City News Service in Los Angeles - "Police blotter during the week, Navy sports on weekends" - MacMillan/Meigs jumped when a fraternity brother offered him a job at the Star-Bulletin. "I was 'Farm and Home' for awhile, then what you now call general assignment. I covered Amelia Earhart's flight from here, for example. ...
"But on the side, I was designing homes for City Mill. And I discovered landscape painting when American Factors brought in artist Peter Hurd to paint historical murals inside Liberty House. I moved on to Tongg Publishing's 'The Islander' magazine - I was living above Tongg in an old bordello on Hotel and Nuuanu with some Chinese dwarfs, a brother and sister - and someone said, hey, let's design aloha shirts!"
Just before World War II yanked the islands onto the world stage, there weren't that many aloha-wear designers. "Keoni" was among the best-known, along with names like Elsie Das, Mansfield Claflin and Muriel Mercer.
"Most of these early artists are unknown," said Brown. "They were paid for their design and that was it. It was anonymous work, and the fact that we even know the name 'Keoni' today is a tribute to his skill."
"The motifs, naturally, were mostly flowers," said Meigs. "After that, it was a challenge to depict what's REALLY Hawaiian without being pedestrian. For example, I did a series based on Gauguin and several on tapa patterns preserved in the Bishop Museum."
Each pattern was penciled out and designed to link together seamlessly. Meigs earned about $100 to $150 for each - "Really good money in those days! We didn't think about registering them or copyrighting them." The patterns were printed on nylon or rayon. Silk, ironically, was rarely used.
"During the war, the Navy boys all picked up aloha shirts, wore them and took them home. California was loaded with aloha shirts. President Truman wore aloha shirts. The Hollywood people were wearing aloha shorts. That, plus the catalogs, meant that after the war the New York garment boys wanted in on the action. And they did, in a big way. They used to come out here with their girlfriends, and leave the wife at home, for 'business' trips," said Meigs.
After the war, Meigs returned to Hawaii and did some design work for "the New York boys." No one in Hawaii seemed to care that he'd changed his last name.
It wasn't as satisfying as the golden pre-war days, and in the early '50s he moved to the southwest and became a landscape artist and collector. Since then, Meigs has returned to Hawaii for other shows, including a well-received 1958 landscape show with John Kjargaard.
He's rarely without his cowboy hat, but he had to stock up on aloha shirts. Even though his 1940s shirts go for hundreds of dollars among collectors, Meigs gave away all his originals. The shirt in the Academy show are from the collection of Seattle-based aloha-shirt enthusiast Dan Eskenazi.
Meigs picked up the shirt he's wearing in the picture here at Savers, for $2.50. "Actually, I got six shirts, each for $2.50," said Meigs. "I'm set!"
Keoni of Hawaii
Aloha Shirt Designs
1938-1951Show dates: Opens today; runs through Jan. 11
Place: Graphic Arts Gallery, Honolulu Academy of Arts
Admission: $5; $3 seniors, students and military; free for members and children under 12
Hours: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m.