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The Old Hawaiian Way

I'm so delighted: we are finally learning our first really dirty hula!

I know that what got a lot of Polynesian dancing in trouble with the uptight Western missionaries was that it all looks pretty dirty, but it would be a mistake to assume that what Western eyes see as sexualized messages are intended that way.

However, we have started learning a hula in the kahiko (ancient) style, called "No Ka Moku Kiakahi Ke Aloha" (done by the artist Keali'i Reichel -- warning, his site has music playing). The title loosely translates to "The one-masted ship that I love", and while on the surface it is about happy sailing things, apparently "ship" and especially "the tall mast" should be read metaphorically as exactly what you are thinking they might be. Heh. In the second verse we get to do an especially obvious arm-movement that shows the mast becoming...taller. Uh-huh.

While on the subject of Hawaiian stuff, although it is a few days late, I also feel the need to report on the fabulous exhibit of vintage Hawaiian shirts that maxineofarc and I went to see last Saturday, at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts.

This was a great exhibit -- much more extensive than I thought it would be, and beautifully designed (says the woman who once considered museum exhibit design as a serious career choice). The large majority of the 150 shirts are from the 40s, 50s and a few from the 60s. They're all gorgeously preserved, so that you're looking at them and your eye is being fooled into thinking they're new, contemporary shirts. I mean, some of them, you can tell they're from that era because of the designs. But some of the designs look completely modern, or at least wouldn't look out of place on sales racks today. (Or, as Maura commented, maybe they just look "modern" because retro is currently in style.)

The exhibit's designers did do two things that we really appreciated. First, they grouped the shirts by motif, so that you'd get to see all the foliage designs in one area, and all the sea-life designs in another; all the "cultural"/lifestyle designs, the "heritage" designs; the "tourism" designs; the music designs; and so on. This was a great idea, as it gave your eye something to look for and to focus on with each grouping of shirts, which was important in an exhibit like this that consists of such visually busy objects. Second, in many cases they included real (or real-looking fake, in the case of all the plants) examples of the things that were showing up in the shirt designs in much more stylized form. This was especially cool for the grouping of foliage/flower/fruit designs, as they had found really excellent silk and plastic versions of a lot of the native flora, so that you could see it right beside the shirts.

I definitely recommend this exhibit to anyone in the Boston area. Karl, if you would still like to go, Maura and I are thinking we'd definitely go back with you.

Another fun thing about the exhibit was that the end included some actually modern shirts, a number from the Banana Jack company, including this lovely and tasteful black on charcoal design, which was in the exhibit. Maura and I thought that karlchristian might need to own it. Hell, I might need to own it. That's the problem with an exhibit like this -- I saw at least 5 shirts that I really, really wanted to take away with me, and sadly, since they were made in the 40s, the likelihood of finding them is slim.



( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 27th, 2004 09:32 am (UTC)
There is a festival in Hilo where all of the hula schools come to compete, and I'd love to schedule my Hawaii-time around it one year:
Apr. 27th, 2004 09:38 am (UTC)
Word. Not that I don't have a vast ambition to go back to Hawai'i someday anyway, but yes, doing it at the right time to see the Merrie Monarch festival would be key.

Some of the other women in the class have some videos from past festivals, and I'm going to try to arrange some video-watching days for all of us (since I have this office with this seminar room that has all the a/v equipment you could possibly want, plus room to seat everybody). The thing I especially like is getting to see the all-male groups do their extremely manly hulas.
Apr. 27th, 2004 10:56 am (UTC)
ooooohhhh.... neat!
Apr. 27th, 2004 11:25 am (UTC)
Duke Kahanamoku! Duke Kahanamoku!
Apr. 27th, 2004 11:25 am (UTC)
Ha ha! I'd love to see that "One Masted Ship that I love" hula. :D

The shirt exhibit sounds really neat. I had no idea that Hawaiian shirts were so... important for lack of a better word. The examples of the plants next to their stylizations really intrigues me.
Apr. 28th, 2004 07:06 am (UTC)
When we first walked into the exhibit, we were impressed by the job the designers had done in putting the shirts in a pretty environment. Most of them were not in cases or anything, but just on stands. And they'd made little platforms for them, as Maura reported some of which consisted of cloth-mache "volcanos" ("Please Keep Off the Lava") and some of which had beach-sand ("Please Keep Off the Beach"), and so on. And there was one whole platform display section in which they'd mocked up a bunch of rocks and a waterfall. And of course lots and lots of tropical plants, either plastic or silk, and some of them really, really big.

But it was extra-delightful when I realized that in the waterfall display, which was all plants with flower motifs, that all the greenery around the display wasn't just random greenery, but were all examples of the flowering plants found in the shirts next to which they were put. That, to me, was genius.

Also -- and Judith and Tamara will be amused by this -- Maura and I got to rehearse the "don't pineapples grow on trees?" conversation, at which point we looked down to discover that the exhibit had, somewhere, found four little plastic pineapple plants, which they'd stuck in the "ground", so you could see how pineapples actually grow. (Those four pieces were probably the fakest-looking plants in the whole show, which I think must testify to the fact that there is not a great demand, out there in the fake-plant world, for pineapple plants; I'm merely impressed that they found any at all.)

On the importance of Hawaiian shirts -- if you think about it, they *ARE* pretty important, fashion-wise. Think about how ubiquitous they are, especially now. They're a fashion item from the 1930s or 1940s that has endured into the 21st century virtually unchanged (judging by how many of those shirts from the 40s looked like you could buy them off the rack in the 00s). And it's not just the current 90s/00s fondness for "retro" fashion, because arguably Aloha shirts have enjoyed a fairly steady popularity throughout time, with merely a spike upwards in the last couple of decades. And I'm not sure if that spike upwards is due to the fondness for retro, or whether instead it's due to the embracing of the Aloha shirt by surfwear companies that, in turn, pretty much all jumped on the skateboarding bandwagon, and sell the same clothing to both demographic groups, plus snowboarders.

Add in their identity as a cultural artifact -- preserving traditional motifs in their designs, even while commercializing them; and also reflecting lifeways, and sometimes events -- and you *do* have a fashion that's really pretty worthy of study; it becomes folkloric as well as fashion. In fact, it's those long-enduring fashions that slip in under the radar that don't get studied often, and really should. Maybe it's a high-brow versus low-brow thing.
Apr. 27th, 2004 10:55 pm (UTC)
I support dirty hula. (I support dirty everything.) This goes along with Tam and my campaign for Dirty Dance Moves in 2003, which I suppose should now be Dirtier Dance Moves in 2004.

Heh. One-masted ship. Heh.

I really have to go to sleep.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )