Story by Curt Sanburn
Photos by Jyoti Mau
Something happened to Honolulu’s garment industry in 1966: It exploded in a riot of bright colors and big prints not seen before or since. It was as if, a full year before the Summer of Love, the dowdy mu‘umu‘u was suddenly tripping out on Hawai‘i’s Technicolor.
Back then the capital city of the freshly minted fiftieth state was a genuine international crossroads. Everyone flying the Pacific had to stop here to refuel, even when they flew on the new jet-powered United DC-8 Mainliners and Pan Am 707 Clippers. To handle the traffic, Honolulu’s airport completed a $28 million expansion in 1962. After decades as a romantic beachside colony for a few well-to-do steamship vacationers, Waikiki suddenly went high-rise. The gleaming department store windows along Kalakaua Avenue—Liberty House, McInerny’s, Andrade—bloomed with flowery, color-saturated cotton-print mu‘umu‘u, shifts, jumpsuits, bikinis and surf trunks. Men’s tailored sport jackets were covered with graphic flower prints in shocking colors or rugged, kapa-inspired patterns. The familiar rayon sarong sheaths and shirts, adorned with coconut trees, lei, surfers, hula girls and ‘ukulele—a.k.a. “chop suey” or “hash” prints—retreated to the his-and-hers racks at bargain tourist shops like Watumull’s and Hilo Hattie.
“Gone are the old touristy prints,” proclaimed the glossy city magazine Honolulu in its inaugural July 1966 issue. “In their stead are vivid colors plucked from our flora, combed from our sky and sea. Gone are the droopy old muus. In their place, dashing culottes, caftan-type cover-ups, shifts with cut-outs, and tiny-topped tents that float wide at the hem.” The graphics on the March 1965 cover of Honolulu’s forerunner, Paradise of the Pacific, hinted at what was coming. An early illustration by Hawai‘i artist Pegge Hopper, the image of an Island girl surrounded by huge tropical leaves and blossoms, is rendered in flat, saturated colors. As much as Hopper paid homage to Matisse, her image reflecting the same creative pop as the just-emerging Carnaby Street style in London, as mod Courrèges in Paris.
For a time in the mid-’60s through the early ’70s, mod Honolulu celebrated its own sunny colors and its own supremely casual style. Honolulu was chic.