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The Prints and Me

Tim Blanks Ponder's his Personal Love Affair with Exotic Shirtings

We’ve been blessed of late with a set of museum shows that bestow atavistic significance on particular pieces of cloth, and quite rightly so. Clothes talk, and a tattered tartan dress from Alexander McQueen’s “Highland Fling” collection, or the suit worn by David Bowie on his “Diamond Dogs” tour, or a “Seditionaries” T-shirt from Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren has more to say than most. Maybe it’s true that the voices are louder if you were there at the time—speak, memory—but it’s not a prerequisite.

Distance in time and space scarcely diminishes the peculiar, almost primal emotions elicited by those items I listed, and all the others like them that are currently filling exhibition halls in London and New York. But you hardly even need to go to a museum to think such thoughts. Just open your drawers and closets.

When I do that, there’s a clamor of color and pattern. It’s rare I meet a loud shirt I’m not ready to listen to, and lately, there have been more and more moments when I’ve sensed designers were tuning into the conversation as well. Hats off to Miuccia; that Prada banana print from two summers ago might as well have been woven from strands of my DNA, so closely did it cleave to the shirt of my dreams. It supplanted in my affections something Junya Watanabe designed a decade or so ago in collaboration with a company called Hawaiian Moon. That also was like something plucked from a boyhood fantasy.


If my personal history has a Rosebud, it would be the perfect Aloha shirt. Now it’s all gone a bit Charlie Sheen, but when I was a kid, such a shirt possessed the quintessential allure of the hopelessly unattainable. If aging grants access to the things you always wanted but could never have, every florid item of clothing I don is just another game of catch-up. Aside from an ardent affair with Japanese monochrome in the eighties, it’s been that way for as long as I’ve been interested in clothes.

Only now, out of idle curiosity, do I pose this predilection against the nature vs. nurture backdrop. There was certainly nothing on either side of my family to suggest a genetic predisposition toward colorful clothing: father an engineer whose biggest wardrobe diktat was ease of movement for his fierce sportiness, mother cursed by a need to fit in, accordingly ill-disposed to anything that would make her sons stand out from the pack (perhaps already resigned to the fact she’d be fighting a losing battle in that department). So, if not nature, then nurture? Or, at least, the lush physicality of growing up in the South Pacific: hibiscus and avocados in the garden, childhood scented by passion fruit and orange blossom.

No, not that either. While it may have been true that the family spent Christmas Day at the beach, I spent the rest of the year in farty navy wool school uniforms. Dreadful it was, but I don’t remember any colorful fantasies of rebellion or escape. I lived quite happily in my head—and I was in love with LIFE, even if the pages of the magazine were dangling the impossible carrot of all the fun people were having at Woodstock or Warhol’s Factory. At least the photos were always in downbeat black-and-white. So was the TV in New Zealand, until 1974 anyway. By that time, I’d walked through the transformative fire of glam rock, and color was everywhere.

But LIFE was also handmaiden to Hollywood, and the path of least resistance suggests that must have been how the Aloha shirt insinuated itself into my synapses. Clothes are character. I saw poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, or shore leave on Diamond Head, as something indolent and sensual. I never saw a retiree or an aging groover. Something else I never saw? A real Aloha shirt. When I was growing up, there was no vintage, only old clothes discarded by sturdy Calvinist ur-Kiwis. My “Hawaiian” shirts would be something batik from the local hippie market, which fit the florid bill without ticking the palm-tree box.

Again, the passage of time offers opportunities to make peace with the past. A recent trip to Auckland led me to a store called Strangely Normal, stocked with shirts cut from vintage American fabrics: Elvis and Vegas, hibiscus galore, Vargas pinup girls, Día de los Muertos extravaganzas. Atavism on a hanger. I could have—should have—bought everything in the place. BG

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