I don’t remember exactly how I came by this shirt, a classic Aloha from Hawai'i. I have a vague recollection of my grandmother pulling it, musty, from the closet many months after my grandfather had died, and asking me did I want it?
Of course I did.
It’s so unlike anything I remember my Bompa wearing: he loved fine clothes, but his passion was for the texture, touch, and feel of the fabric. It’s not so much that I don’t remember him wearing bold colors and patterns as it is that I remember him being very finely tailored, always -- which made him nice to hug.
I remember his excitement when he called me over to show me the camel hair coat that he had just bought for himself -- it wasn't enough to say "beautiful, Bompa" -- we reviewed every stitch and seam of that jacket together. And I loved every minute of it. It's why I bought one for myself, years later. It's why I think of him every time I put it on.
Even his stories were populated with scenes from the wardrobe: Like the time he had a suit made for my father in Hong Kong while he was still a teenager – and my dad grew so fast that he outgrew the suit before he had a chance to wear it. Or the time that my Bompa pulled out his Stetson to show to a friend from the Philippines, and how his friend misunderstood and took the show-and-tell as a special honor – and believed the hat was my grandfather’s gift to him.
Of course Bompa followed through, and of course the hat went home with his friend. And of course he grieved when he told that story. (He really loved that hat.)
I remember too, spending the summer with my grandparents during my freshman year in college, and my grandmother becoming deeply involved in the planning of her high school reunion. Turned out an old boyfriend of hers was on the same organizing committee, and paid her generous amounts of attention. My grandfather’s response was to go shopping and return with a stunning skirt and sweater set for my grandmother: dressing up his beautiful bride with pride. Grama ate it up. We didn’t hear much about the old boyfriend after that.
So although I can't remember him ever wearing anything this bold, I do remember him boldly loving Hawai'i, and that's enough to make me love this shirt.
His Aloha is a sturdy cotton – unlike the silk or rayon that Aloha shirts were traditionally made of – with a stamped print pattern and tender Chinese coin-like buttons. I was reminded that it was stashed away in my closet when I was poking around the Patagonia site and found an essay in honor of the Aloha Shirt. (Alongside Patagonia product of course, but they’re not a bad bunch of shirts, if you like Aloha Shirts; and the essay itself is worth reading for this clip alone: "He told me that in life there are two kinds of people; people of substance and those with little or no substance, and that you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit no matter how you slice or dice it.")
I’d always assumed that Bompa’s shirt dated to the 1950s, when my grandparents spent a good amount of time in Hawai’i, but according to the Gerry Lopez piece it was around that time that the manufacture of Aloha shirts moved away from the islands (he doesn’t say to where – Asia maybe?) where they could be created more cheaply.
So I either have a rare shirt from before the decline of island production, or one of the shirts that re-emerged after the craft returned in the late 60s and early 70s. Or a shirt with a label that lies when it says “Made in Hawaii.”
Either way, it’s my Bompa’s.
Bompa was not a tall man, and given that I’m quite a tall girl, you’d think I’d be out of luck trying to wear one of his old shirts. But lucky for me it’s my legs that give me that height, and my torso, it turns out, is exactly his size (as are my hands, as I learned when I held his hand while he was dying – they were perfect twins, his hand and mine).
The shirt, I'm happy to report, hugs me just right.
Aloha is a Hawaiian greeting that encompasses the meaning of love, mercy and compassion. Having the aloha spirit meant living and giving these virtues. The aloha shirt is a symbol of the aloha spirit, and when a person wears the shirt, he also wears the aloha spirit.
— Gerry Lopez in Aloha