WOULD YOU PAY $1,500 FOR A SHIRT?
: : James Goodykoontz would. James is a vintage clothing dealer in Sacramento, California who knows a good deal when he spots one. A deal on a vintage Hawaiian shirt, that is. The host of Vintagehawaiianshirt.net, James spoke with us about the current resurgence of interest in Hawaiian shirts and a whole lot more. : :
MT : : How many shirts do you have in your collection? And what do you think is a realistic estimate as to what it might be 10 years from now?
JG : : Including shirts that I didn’t put on the website, about 115. As far as 10 years from now, it’s hard to say. Really good vintage shirts are getting very rare. Over the last year, for instance I’ve only found 5 or 6 that were nice enough to include on my site.
MT : : Is the collection organic? What I mean is, does it grow and change depending on your mood? Do you get rid of shirts if they start to bore you?
JG : : Of course it’s organic, if that’s how you want to describe it – in the sense that my eye and my taste in shirts has definitely changed through the years, and will, no doubt, continue to change. For instance, I used to see tons of 60s- and 70s-era Hawaiian shirts on thrift store racks. While I thought many of them were interesting, I never bothered to actually buy them. Now the really good ones have become pretty collectable in their own right. And what I’ve noticed is that I’m much more personally attracted to them as well. I’ve also become far less concerned with what the vintage “experts” deem to be the best or most valuable shirts. I have gotten rid of shirts in the past. Usually I like to do trades.
MT : : Are there any “holy grails” out there, something you’ve only seen in a book or heard a rumour about? And how much would you pay for a shirt like that?
JG : : As far as “holy grails,” there are too many to name. One of the things that makes collecting vintage Hawaiian shirts interesting is that there are so many different cool prints out there. The “Hawaiian Maiden” back panel print or, for that matter, any of the back panel print shirts – “The Coconut Boy” or “Tree climber” by Kamehameha. Or any of the really wild surfer-theme or fish print shirts from the 40s and early 50s. Also, the hand-painted topless hula girl shirts are very cool. As far as what I would pay for some of those shirts, the most I’ve ever paid is $1500. I might go a little higher for some of the shirts I just mentioned but I’m not a wealthy man. It’s much nicer, and more fun, to find them in thrift stores or yard sales for a low price.
MT : : What blew me away while looking at the photos on the website is the variety. I thought Hawaiian shirts pretty much stuck to the themes of palm trees, pineapples, hula girls, and orchids. There are Oriental themes, racing cars, sea-life, and strangely enough, one that details “the history of modern man.” What’s the strangest shirt you’ve ever encountered?
JG : : I think some of the work of John “Keoni” Miegs is incredible. He was the designer of the Gaugin shirts on my site. Those are extremely wild prints. But I don’t know if they’re strange. Really, maybe the "Hawaiian Maiden" shirt that I mentioned earlier – I mean if you think about it, the shirt was long-sleeved, so it was supposed to be formal wear but it was solid black or red with a large print of a Hawaiian maiden sitting in a submissive kneeling position on the back panel of the shirt. For it’s time period, it was pretty loud and a little strange. But I tend to view the shirts with such a strong appreciation for the art form that judgements like “strange” never really come to my mind.
MT : : I can tell by your commentary you regard these shirts as “Art”, and I’d have to say that I agree with you; some of the detail is nothing short of incredible. But you indicate that even today, people regard them as tacky, loud, and kitsch. What the hell do you think was going on in the 1950s – the very age of “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit”? If these look crazy today, how were they perceived back then?
JG : : I think the people that regard Hawaiian shirts as loud and tacky are people that just aren’t inclined to more interesting or creative expressions of individuality. They’re shallow and they don’t deserve to live – just kidding. There certainly weren’t any more or less of them 40 years ago. Your question does bring up a more interesting and subtle issue or misunderstanding that I think deserves to be discussed. I think that it’s because of black and white photography and old episodes of “I Love Lucy” that we tend to think of the 50s as a very dull, simple, or as you put it, “Grey Flannel” decade. The truth is that many of the wildest “designer” colors of the 90s were first popularized in the late 40s and 50s. And while everybody liked Ike in the 50s, they were also reading the Kinsey report in record numbers. There really was an energy and spirit in this country after WWII that was essential to the popularization of more radical intellectual and artistic movements. I think the Hawaiian shirt was one manifestation of this emerging need on the part of Americans to express themselves as individuals, and I think a lot of people reacted to them as that.
MT : : Graphic designers, illustrators, and copywriters are the real manufacturers of culture, I think. And textile designers fit right into that – we walk around WEARING what they design. Do you think that with the recent resurgence of interest in Hawaiian shirts that these designers are finally getting the credit they deserve?
JG : : No. Almost all the shirts being manufactured today are cheap imitations of the original art form. Manufacturers either pay for the right to copy vintage prints or put out shirts that lack detail, originality, or any other creative impulse that was so essential to the vintage prints. There are some smaller labels that make interesting print shirts but there’s only a fraction of the number of manufacturers out there that there were 40 or 50 years ago. If designers, illustrators, and copywriters were allowed to truly express their innermost artistic impulses, then you might see something interesting. But we all have to earn a paycheck, and if the boss thinks your work is too “over-the-edge” – I can’t believe I’m using that expression here! – you’re going to conform and give him what he wants. Unfortunately, these days, most people are more concerned with the label than the artwork. I see too many two and three color shirts that were obviously manufactured because the colors don’t clash. I mean, look at some of the color combinations in the shirts on my site. Most of the designers I know would freak out if they were expected to design with those sorts of wild contrasting colors. But I guess the new shirts do reflect our present culture. I’m just not sure that it’s an altogether positive reflection. These days, high fashion seems very boring. It’s no wonder so many people collect vintage clothing.
MT : : You’ve said a number of times that today’s designs don’t even come close to the quality of the originals. Why do you think that is?
JG : : The fabric for the old shirts was silkscreened by hand. There was actually a lot of care put into the creation of the prints. When I say these shirts are works of art, I’m really not exaggerating. The amount of detail in the designs achieved with five colors is truly remarkable. It’s probably not economically feasible to make fabrics like that anymore. Also, the construction of the shirts was nicer. They wasted a lot of fabric cutting the different panels so that they didn’t pucker and shrink. There are some tolerable replica shirts out there but when you compare them close up, they still don’t look as good, and this really is true whether you’re an expert or a novice.
MT : : What’s all this about Rayon vs. Cotton, and one being better than the other?
JG : : It’s long been accepted that the old “silky” rayon shirts are the most desirable. I’ve heard that they were actually the cheapest in their day. The reason they’re more desirable is that rayon held the registry of colors by far the best. So designers could get much more elaborate in their work on rayon shirts. There’s always much nicer detail on the old rayon shirts. If you ever compare rayon prints to cotton ones, the edges of the subjects within the print are much crisper. The edges are always a little fuzzier and sometimes a lot fuzzier on the cotton ones. But the cotton shirts still have nice retro art and are probably more comfortable to wear because they breathe much better. I’ve often wondered why they don’t manufacture more apparel with the old silky rayon fabric. There was a story put forth about the Dupont factory burning down and somehow they lost the secret recipe for making it. This isn’t true. Anyway, when I first got into this business, it was as if you couldn’t give cotton shirts away. Now they’ve developed a popularity and appreciation of their own, and nice ones command a fairly respectable price.
MT : : When shopping for vintage Hawaiian shirts, what should someone look for?
JG : : I think you should trust your personal taste and eye. If you like the shirt and you’re willing to pay the price, then you should buy it. But I guess in general, Hawaiian labels are preferred to mainland labels. Vertical panel prints or border prints are very desirable. And shirts with depictions of people on them are more prized. Really good labels among the Hawaiian manufacturers would be Kamehameha or Malihini or Kuu Ipo. But all of the manufacturers made some great shirts. The general rule of thumb is “the uglier the better.” In other words, the wilder the shirt, the more valuable it’s likely to be. If you have a shirt with pretty flowers on it, that’s ok – but if you have one with topless hula girls, that’s really cool.
MT : : And now, for the Canadian angle: are any of your shirts Canadian, like from the Hudson’s Bay Company or Eaton’s or Simpson’s? I’m guessing Canada, with it’s long winters, isn’t a big manufacturer of tropical wear.
JG : : I don’t know that I’ve ever come across any Canadian manufacturers but I’d bet that some of them did make their own line of Hawaiian shirts. I’ve had correspondence with the fellow that has the dot com for “vintagehawaiianshirt.” He’s from Alaska and he tells me that there used to be tons of cool shirts in his area, probably because people vacationed in Hawaii to escape the cold climate. I would imagine the same was true in Canada.
MT : : We really like Tikis here at Mai Tai – how come no tikis on the shirts? Too scary or sexual for 50s folks?
JG : : Actually, you do see tiki art in old shirts but there was a far greater variety of themes being portrayed, so a much smaller percentage of the artwork portrayed tikis. You start seeing more tiki art in the 60s and 70s, which was a period when the variety of artistic themes started to shrink and the industry became more homogenized.
MT : : And now for the final question: If there was a fire – God forbid – and only one shirt were allowed to survive, which one would it be? Well, let’s make it two shirts, since you’d probably have one on your back too.
JG : : That’s a tough question. I know one of them would probably be the Eugene Savage mural print, since that’s the one I spent $1500 on. But I suppose the other would be the Shaheen border print that’s the first image on the rayon page. But then, as I think of it, there’s also image 28. That’s the one I plan on being buried in when my time comes. So my answer is, given that I’d be wearing one, I’d have two free hands, so I’d grab two of them – of course.
Web sites of interest:
Non-Hawaiian but well-made retro repros:
Dave LeBlanc © 2002