Aloha Prince

A fanciful textile devoted to love

Decades ago, I gave a one-day botany class for textile designers, though it might better have been termed a crusade.  I had seen too many fabrics and wall coverings in which the plants were artfully but awkwardly interpreted, orchids with stamens like tulips, leaves with veins that made no sense, and attachments that are unnatural.  What I learned from the textiles students, of course, was that graphic designers are amused to realize plants are constructed in predictable ways, and stunned to think that anyone actually cares how plants are interpreted in patterns.  And, I learned that “florals” refers to any design with organic shapes, from parsley to paisley, whether or not there was intention to represent plants or flowers.

Paying more attention to floral patterns over the years, I’ve come to realize that beyond the many demands governing what makes a good and useful cloth pattern, there may not be a lot of room left to satisfy the naturalist. I sometimes encounter an incredible yard of cloth that also shows botanical bona fides, which is swell. But in one particular regard, I am seldom disappointed, and find attention to detail. There is the one kind of plant (one flower) that designers seem to get right – the icon, the epitome, the prince of Aloha prints…, Hibiscus.

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, a highly selected group of plants whose nativity is uncertain, though thought to be tropical Asia.

So this is interesting to me. Why Hibiscus? I believe there is something about iconography that demands convention. Designers adopt standards that allow a given leaf or flower to announce itself as a symbol. Poppy flowers have to show the two cupped calyx lobes, Roses must include five lance-shaped sepals, or they are unrecognizable, impossible for designers to distinguish. It’s a curious, international taxonomy.

JPF, your author, in an Aloha Shirt

What, then, about Hibiscus – a flower image that has come to represent tropical abundance, and even more specifically, codes for the Hawaii circa 1955 – caused designers to remain in tow, botanically? How do designers respect their structure when other flowers are so ill-attended? I think the powderpuff clustering of stamens and the velvety, 5-lobed stigma, so well exerted, came to define this exotic type. Those features became core to its iconography.

Hibiscus schizopetalus, a native of tropical East Africa

For once, at least, botanists and artists are on the same wavelength. In fact, even Linnaeus’s artificial system of grouping plants was in agreement with any of the more recent, natural groupings that accept the Malvaceae (Hibiscus, Cotton, Okra, Abutilon, Sida, Sphaeralcea, etc.) as a tidily organized branch on the tree of life. In all of these, an androphore (clustered, connate stamens, their individual anthers breaking out in a bottle-brush kind of structure) sheathes a long style, which emerges and breaks into 5 separate lobes, each reflecting a carpel in the ovary.

Structure reigns, but color might suffer

Curiously, though Hibiscus reigns as the Prince of tropical iconography, it has become something of an unwelcome carpetbagger on the islands, neither native to Hawaii nor natively an associate of other tropical icons, like Strelitzia, Philodendron, and Cattleya orchids. Indeed, Hibiscus is a bit of an orphan, and the whole assemblage is, to some extent, smoke and mirrors – a cast of players that exemplify bold, uncommon patterns, super sizes, and strong colors, with textures as glossy as the best patent leather, but are cobbled together for beautiful drapery, upholstery, and Aloha shirts.

Alyongyne, Australia’s “Blue Hibiscus”
A cotton flower, ripped open to show the androphore

To explore the origins of Aloha shirts…

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