Saturday, 9 June 2012

Paradise in Print: The History of Aloha Wear

1939 Frank Macintosh Luggage Decal
Recently, I found this Tahitian his and hers honeymoon set which piqued my interest to learn more about aloha clothing.  I'm not alone in loving the colorful hibiscus, plumeria and bird-of-paradise prints; America has had a love affair with aloha wear since it was introduced in the 1930s.

Native Polynesian clothing was made from tapa cloth (kapa in Hawaiian), a thin cloth produced by pounding the bark of the mulberry tree that was both durable and versatile with several uses from clothing to home furnishings.  Vegetable dyes were used to decorate the cloth with vibrant patterns that would later greatly influence the aloha wear we know today.  Originally, the most common clothing in this tropical climate was a loincloth or malo for men and a pa'u, a skirt-like garment for women.

The arrival of plantations and Protestant missionaries during the early 19th century brought radical dress reform to the natives.  The pa'u gave way to the unfitted, full-length "Mother Hubbard" dress (originally the holoku) which had long sleeves and a high neck.  Well into the 1930s, for men the most common garments became the blue and white checkered denim palaka shirts and sailor-mokus, denim pants worn by the plantation workers.

During the 1920s, Asian tailors started making souvenir shirts for the growing tourist trade.  The Depression brought more immigrant Japanese textile merchants and an industry was born.  There are varying opinions regarding the actual originator of the aloha shirt.  Ellery Chun, while working for his family business King-Smith, received the first trademark for Aloha sportswear July 15, 1936.  However, Koichira Miyamoto, known as Musa-Shiya the Shirtmaker, advertised his aloha shirt in the Honolulu Advertiser June 28, 1935. 

Another pioneer was artist Elsie Das who was commissioned by Watumull's East India Store to create 15 floral designs depicting native plants like hibiscus, breadfruit and cereus as well as a hula girl pattern which were sent to Japan to be printed on silk.  She inadvertently sparked a trend when a Japanese manufacturer mistakenly printed her designs on satin.  It was through Hollywood that aloha wear found it's way into mainstream American fashion when enamored actresses bought the fabric and soon the prints were seen on everything from sportswear to tableware.   


And so began a period that is today referred to as the Golden Age of aloha shirts with a quality never duplicated once mainland mass production and polyester was introduced.  These highly sought after first shirts were hand tailored from silk and cotton; rayon appeared in the late 1940s and 1950s.  Among the most collected are border and engineered shirts which required extra fabric so as not to break the pattern.  Engineered shirts in particular are an optical marvel with a seamless image from side to side and invisibly placed buttons.  

For women, the fitted holoku is perhaps the favorite with it's distinguishing train but as the dress became more formal it's shortened version, the mu'umu'u (meaning "cut-off" for it's lack of a yoke) grew popular for casual wear.  As these dresses fused with Asian and mainland designs, other styles emerged like the fitted pake mu'u with winged sleeves, the holomu; a fitted off-shoulder dress with ruffled collar and the fitted sleeveless tea-timer with a mandarin collar.

Sales soared into the 1940s with the influx of servicemen wanting to take home a reminder of paradise which they continued to wear at home.  This sparked US mainland production by companies like Arrow and Van Heusen.  

Tourism continued to surge with a growing cruise industry and faster planes.  Airlines like United and Pan-American began offering more flights and despite the 23 1/4 hours flight from New York, travelers were lured with colorful ad campaigns during the 1950s like these. 

Anton Bruehl
Matson Cruise in particular deserves special mention for it's contribution.  The company was formed in 1882 and it's first Lurline ship was acquired in 1887.  It's primary function was to carry freight from the Pacific Coast to Hawaii but when tourism grew so did the Matson fleet with a second Lurline in 1908.  More passenger ships were bought and luxury liners were added in the late 1920s to early 30s along with it's famous Royal Hawaiian hotel in 1927. 

Matson promoted it's cruises with a strong advertising campaign using well-known photographers such as Edward Steichen and Anton Bruehl.  Matson then hired artists Frank Macintosh, Eugene Savage, John Kelly and Louis Macouillard to design menu covers for the ships and hotel.  The following two examples by Macintosh of the six he designed perfectly illustrate why the menus are today highly sought after for their display of vibrant graphics.

"Fruit Harvest"

Fashion and Hollywood have always gone hand in hand and aloha wear was no exception through the 1950s and beyond.  The Oscar winning film From Here To Eternity in 1954 featuring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra pushed aloha wear to it's greatest heights.  Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959 and Elvis Presley donned a Shaheen aloha shirt on the album cover for 1961's Blue Hawaii soundtrack.  

Sinatra & Clift


One of the most high regarded designers of the 1950s, Alfred Shaheen worked in the family business manufacturing Hawaiian clothing.  In 1948 he began producing men's shirts and fashionable women's resort wear including full-skirted halter dresses, sarongs and swimsuits.  Using the hand printed fabrics he had made in Hawaii rather than imported, his high quality ready-to-wear garments distinguished him from other makers.

Presidents, actors and actresses, entertainers, socialites and sports celebrities were all seen in aloha wear during this time and any hopes of it cooling off were thwarted with groups like the Beach Boys, television shows such as Gilligan's Island and later Hawaii Five-O in the 70s and Fantasy Island in the 80s; the decade that also gave us Tom Selleck as Magnum PI and his iconic shirts.  And who can forget Kramer's shirts in the 90s on Seinfeld?

Magnum PI

Ginger - Gilligan's Island

So what is it about this clothing that has attracted malihinis (tourists) the world over?   Perhaps it's because it's because it's identifiable with the carefree and liberating spirit of the Islands or maybe it's the vibrant images that draw us.  What is certain is America's ongoing love affair with aloha wear will continue throughout the 21st century and forever will we dream of going to Hawaii and Tahiti for a taste of paradise.

Falls Avenue Vintage Fashion

Click here to experience life on a Matson cruise ship in the 1950s.

Main Sources: 
Designs from the Golden Age of Hawaiian Shirts - Gary L. Moss:
Creating Hawaii Tourism By Robert C. Allen

Sunday, 22 April 2012

A Tale of Beauty & A Pink Cadillac

Her golden rule was "God first, family second, career third".  Mary Kay Ash was a force but unlike most of the beauty queens that came before her, she didn't actually concoct potions on her stove top.  Her success was not in beauty innovations but rather in her innovative business skills.  Proving women belonged in the corporate world, she was the first to run a company with an all-female sales team complete with it's own fleet of pink Cadillacs.

Mary Kathlyn Wagner was born in 1918 in Hot Wells, Texas.  Married at 17 to Ben Rogers, they had three children when he went to war leaving her in need of part-time work.  She found her calling when a door-to-door encyclopedia saleswoman made Mary Kay a deal; if she could sell 10 sets she could have one free.  She sold an unprecedented 10 sets in under 2 days.

She dropped encyclopedias in favor of more useful wares with Stanley Home products, a direct sales company of household supplies.  Upon his return, her husband ran off with another woman forcing Mary Kay to work full-time to support her children.  Within 2 years she was their leading saleswoman and when a well-deserved promotion came up it was promptly given to man.  She left in 1952 for another direct sales company, the World Gift Co.  This time she was promoted to the board but despite expanding distribution throughout the USA she was admonished for "thinking like a woman" every time she made a suggestion.  Once again, she hit the proverbial glass ceiling when a man she had trained was promoted earning double  her salary.  Dismayed, in 1963 she retired from sales.

She intended to write a working guide for women but instead Mary Kay made two lists; one detailing what was wrong with existing company models and the other what she felt what would make the ideal company.  She wanted equality and promotion based on worth as well as easy to sell quality products that weren't chosen based on profit margins.  Her plan allowed working mothers to be self-employed while working flexible schedules; they would determine their own hours and earnings.
With $5000 in retirement savings and a new husband, George Arthur Hallenbeck, Mary Kay began her venture.  Now to find the easy to sell product because it actually worked.  Coincidentally, for the last 10 years she had been buying a moisturizer made by a local hide tanner.  She bought his recipe, had a manufacturer create skincare products based on it and rented a small store in Dallas.  Beauty products were a perfect venue - demand was high, they were seemingly recession-proof and daily use ensured future orders. 

Mary Kay trained friends as consultants while George set up the business details.  Sadly, he died just before the store opening and she was advised to drop everything.  Now in her 40s, she was considered "old" for a woman in her day but she forged ahead with her son, Richard Rogers.  Beauty by Mary Kay officially opened September 13, 1963.

Her consultants showed women through hands-on application how good the products were.  She knew if the women saw an immediate improvement they'd jump to buy.  Even today, most all marketed products are sold with bold claims and pressure tactics.  You had to buy it first to see if it delivered on it's promises.  Here you could sample without cost and enjoy a complimentary make-over in the comfort and privacy of your own home.  It was all geared to making someone feel special.  Mary Kay wisely advised, "Pretend that every single person you meet has a sign around his or her neck that says 'Make Me Feel Important.' Not only will you succeed in business, you will succeed in life."

The company earned $34,000 in it's first few months up to a whopping $800,000 in 1965.  Then she had 3,000 consultants - today there are 2 million worldwide.  The company went public in 1968 and the following year she created her famous rewards program.  Her top consultants were awarded diamonds, vacations or the iconic pink Cadillac, the color of her favorite blush.  Incidentally, today almost 10,000 women drive Mary Kay cars and as of 2008, the fleet is worth over $140 million and is the largest commercial fleet of GM passenger cars in the world.* 

She tirelessly gave motivational speeches and told her reps, "At Mary Kay you are in business for yourself, but not by yourself."  After she was interviewed for CBS's 60 Minutes in 1979, sales skyrocketed past $300 million in 1983.  Shareholders were happy with profits but not so giddy about "those frivolous pink cars."  To Mary Kay, the Cadillacs were symbolic and she wasn't going to stand for the echoes of "you think like a woman" so she bought back her company.  In 1993, it earned over $1 billion and the still privately held company earns more than twice that today.     

Mary Kay Ash died in 2001 and business aside, her greatest legacy is the Mary Kay Foundation whose mission statement reads, "Dedicated to ending women's cancers and domestic abuse".  Established in 1996, it has granted $25 million to date.  Amen to that! 
Of all of her motivational quotes, my favorite is, "God didn't have time to make a can have, or be, anything you want."  She believed every one of us matters.  She didn't take a scientific approach to beauty, only a new approach to selling beauty products.  Like Madam C.J. Walker, she empowered women and presented opportunities never before available to them.  Mary Kay Ash offered all that and the keys to a brand new pink Cadillac.

Mary Kay photos courtesy of

Monday, 12 March 2012

Madam C.J. Walker: A Queen of a Different Color

Madam C.J. Walker isn't a name that springs to mind when we think of beauty products, at least not like Arden and Rubinstein anyway.  Though she could afford it, she wouldn't be seen dining in the Empire Room at the Waldorf Astoria because she wasn't permitted and despite being the first American female self-made millionaire, Vogue never would have called on her for an interview.  You see, Madam wasn't white but that didn't stop her from building a very successful haircare business aimed at an untapped black American market.

Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867 on a cotton plantation in Delta, Louisiana.  Her parents, former slaves, died in 1874 and she was living with her sister when she married Moses McWilliams at 14.  She had her only child, Lelia, and when her husband died a short time later she and her daughter moved to St. Louis where she worked as a washerwoman for the next 17 years.

Hair loss was a common problem owing to outdoor plumbing and the inability to wash hair as often as we do today.  Sarah tried every remedy on the market but nothing worked for her.  She wrote, "...A big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair...I mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out...I made up my mind I would begin to sell it."*  Aware of the competition in St. Louis, she shrewdly headed for Denver in 1905 to sell her homemade products door-to-door.  She produced Wonderful Hair Grower scalp treatment containing sulfur, Vegetable Shampoo and Glossine to straighten black hair using heated metal combs. 

After a brief marriage to John Davis, she married newspaper sales agent Charles Joseph Walker in 1906 and added Madam to make her self-titled products more appealing.  He devised an aggressive marketing plan and set up a mail order business with innovative ads that showed before and after images.  He was content with minimal success but Madam was ambitious and left him to strike out on her own.  She put her daughter in charge of mail orders while she traveled cross-country to promote her products.  They moved to Pittsburgh in 1908 and established Lelia College to train "Walker Agents" in the "Walker System of Hair Culture". 

These graduates were offered an opportunity never before available to them.  They could make in one week what the average colored woman made in a month.  By teaching them how to set up and run home-based beauty shops these women were able to buy homes and educate their children, no small feat for a woman in those days, black or white.  
 In 1910, Madam visited Indianapolis and saw a city connected to eight major railroads 
making it ideal for her ever-growing mail order business.  A large thriving black community was another incentive to build Madame C. J. Walker Laboratories there.  The factory contained a salon and college where women were taught to style hair, give massages, manicures and scalp treatments.  

On an interesting note, no women were slated to speak at the 13th Annual Convention of the National Negro Business League in 1912.  Madam, disregarding moderator Booker T. Washington, walked straight up to the podium and said, "Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face. I feel that I am in a business that is a credit to the womanhood of our race. I am a woman who started in business seven years ago with only $1.50."*  You can  bet she was on the roster for the 14th Annual Convention!

Her women's business conventions recognized both sales as well as black achievements.  She herself was a generous philanthropist who contributed to several black educational institutions, orphanages and organizations like the YWCA and the NAACP to which she contributed $5,000 for it's Anti-Lynching Campaign to make the act a federal crime.  In 1913, she bought a house in Harlem which included a salon and training facility.  She moved to NY permanently in 1916 and built a mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, an upscale community north of the city not far from John D. Rockefeller.  Sadly, she died just a short time later in 1919 leaving behind a company valued at over one million dollars.

She never saw her final dream realized; the vision born out of rage.  Fond of the movies, she put down a dime for a ticket at the Isis theater in Indianapolis and was told the price was a quarter for "colored persons".  Madam sued the theater and hired an architect to plan a new building.  It would cover a block and besides manufacturing and training, would offer a social and cultural center for the black community complete with a theater.   

Equally spirited, soon after her mother's death Lelia changed her name to A'Lelia and became a major supporter of the Harlem Renaissance movement.  She carried on her mother's business and finished The Walker Building in 1927 which at the time employed about 3000 black men and women.  Though it's still in operation as Madam C.J. Walker Enterprises, as of 1985 the Walker family is no longer involved with the company.   Today, the building is home to the Madam Walker Theatre Center and other businesses.  

Not forgotten, in 1998, the US Postal Service issued the Madam C.J. Walker Commemorative stamp as a part of its Black Heritage Series and in 2001, her great-great-grandmother A'Lelia Bundles wrote "On Her Own Ground: the Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker.  Most recently, this past March 2, she was one of 10 Hoosiers chosen for a Legacy Award by the state of Indiana.  The images and biographies of those chosen are displayed on 6-foot-high columns along Georgia Street in downtown Indianapolis.

Madam said, "I had to make my own living and my own opportunity! But I made it! Don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them!"  I've written of women of this era who succeeded despite all odds but never with the added burden of color and widespread racism.  This extraordinary woman, haircare queen and entrepreneur earned her place not only in the beauty industry but also in history.

Main Sources:
Photos from the A'Lelia Bundles Walker Family Collection

Friday, 2 March 2012

Max Factor: Makeup & Make Believe

Max Factor - the name simply inspires glamor.  His was the name that was found in the screen credits and it was his innovations that revolutionized the cosmetics industry.  Arden and Rubinstein pioneered skincare but Factor was all about makeup.  He provided women the magic to transform themselves.  In Max's world, lashes were longer and thicker, lips fuller, skin was powdered to resemble alabaster and eyes were smouldering. 

He was born Maksymilian Faktorowicz in Lodz, Poland, 1877.  All of 7 years old, he sold snacks in the lobby of the Czarina Theater and by 14 he had already been apprenticed to a pharmacist, a wig maker and a hair stylist.  He moved to Moscow and worked for the cosmetician to the Imperial Russian Grand Opera.  After serving a mandatory 4 years in the Russian army, at 22 he opened a shop selling his own cosmetics, fragrances and wigs.

Thanks to royal patronage, business boomed but the court royals loved Max so much he had no time for his shop.  Though he was well paid to make them beautiful they were fanatically possessive.  He was escorted by guard everywhere and even had to conceal his wife and 3 children.  Antisemitism was growing fierce and Max began dreaming of joining his brother and uncle in St. Louis where the World Fair was soon to open.

Max escaped and boarded a steamship for America with his family.  He had shortened his name to Faktor earlier but the Ellis Island immigration officials wrote down Factor.  In 1904, Max realized his dream at the World Fair where he sold his products.  Lured by the growing film industry, he moved to LA to sell his wigs and became the West Coast distributor for the Leichner and Minor companies who produced theatrical make-up.

From here on, Max's achievements would be direct results of his work for the Studios.  His great talent enabled him to advance with Hollywood both technologically and artistically.  In 1914 he created a jarred cream greasepaint that came in 12 shades and didn't crack or cake.  It enabled him to customize makeup to the individual actor at a time when a stick form of thick greasepaint was the only product available.  In 1917, his Supreme Liquid Whitener turned a starlet's skin to alabaster.

In 1918 he introduced Color Harmony face powder which featured an even wider range of shades.  For Rudolph Valentino he created a shade that would lighten his olive skin onscreen and later there would be Platinum for Jean Harlow, Special Medium for Joan Crawford and Dark for Claudette Colbert.  Max also created Clara Bow's famous bee stung lips.  In 1922, he began marketing his own tubed greasepaint which was more hygienic and easy to use.

Max referred to cosmetics as "make-up" and in 1920 his son convinced him to market the phrase.  It offered a certain degree of reputability to the "face paint" that was once common to only actors and prostitutes.  In fact, in 1915 a law was proposed in Kansas forbidding women under 44 to wear cosmetics “for the purpose of creating a false impression”!  Despite this prohibition, Max garnered success after success with products like Supreme Nail Polish in 1925 that provided a light tint and Society Nail Tint or Nail White in 1927 which gave a rose tint or a French style manicure.  Nail polish would come in 1934 with his Liquid Nail Enamel.

The Calibrator -1932 - Factor's invention that revealed facial flaws that needed to be corrected for onscreen.

1927 was a good year for Max; he won an Oscar for his Panchromatic make-up and his children won their battle for national expansion.  Actresses were happy to endorse the products they loved for a fee of $1 in exchange for film promotion.  During this time, Hollywood was undergoing severe changes in sound and film production.  With the advent of sound, noisy lights were replaced with quieter ones that also created a softer light.  Orthochromatic film was replaced by Panchromatic film which darkened skin tones.  Max answered with his new Panchromatic make-up (trademarked 1929) but Technicolor the following decade posed new problems when the make-up looked poor onscreen.  Stars refused to appear in color films but Frank saved the day by creating Pan-Cake in 1937, a solid cake concealer applied with a damp sponge that left a clear matte finish. 

To say Pan-Cake was a hit would be an understatement, it was the fastest and best selling beauty product in history.  Even the actresses were stealing it from the sets before it was sold commercially.  The only drawback was it couldn't be used at night as it was formulated for use under bright studio lights so Frank developed lighter shades.  When Max died in 1938 Frank took the name Max Factor, Jr. and his next smash hit came in 1940 with Tru-Color, a smear-proof lipstick that came in 6 shades of red.  In 1947, Pan-Stik, a stick form of non-greasy cream make-up was another development resulting from changes in studio lighting and filming that was an instant success when it hit the shelves in 1939.  That same year he created the makeup  for The Wizard of Oz, notably for Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West and the Horse of a Different Color in the Emerald City.

Max Jr., as innovative as his father, created Color TV Make-up in 1954 which became standard until just the last decade.  That same year he introduced Erase, the original concealer.  During this decade he ventured into fragrances and men's products and in 1965 he introduced the Geminesse line of cosmetics, skincare and fragrances. 


1960s (top&bottom ads)

The company went public in the early 1960s and merged with Norton Simon in 1973.  During these years there was waterproof make-up in 1971, Musk For Men and the Halston line of fragrances but despite these and the lower priced youthful Maxi line, the company was lagging.  

In 1983 Norton Simon was taken over by Esmark which merged with Beatrice Foods.  Max Factor was a part of their Playtex division sold to Revlon in 1986 who sold Max Factor to Proctor & Gamble in 1991.  As of 2010, P&G discontinued Max Factor in the US though it's still marketed overseas.

A master of illusion, Max Factor was a godsend to Hollywood.  When women attending movie houses in the 1930s grumbled, "No one looks that good in real life!" he responded by offering them the means to achieve the same results.  He and Max Jr. not only had a direct hand in the success of the silver screen, the beauty industry and womankind will forever be indebted to these men.  Viva la 12 hour lipstick!

Main Sources:
Fred E. Basten - “Max Factor: The Man Who Changed the Faces of the World”