In a March 24, 1950, feature, the Honolulu Advertiser wrote, Elsie Das “can lay close claim to being the originator of the Aloha print … Chances are you have a Das design on a shirt or dress in your closet right now.” (Hope)
“Her finished works are poignant, powerful, unforgettable and unmistakable. They’re eminently wearable. Their colors sing. Dour men turn beaming countenances on the world when they wear an Elsie Das aloha shirt. Don’t ask us how or why, they just do.”
“Elsie Das is an original, with a highly trained technique. As fine a painter as she is a designer. Hers is a quality akin to genius.” (Madge Tennant, Paradise of the Pacific, October, 1955; Hope)
Let’s look back …
Gobindram (GJ) Watumull took over the Honolulu ‘East India Store’. In 1922, he married Ellen Jensen, an American music teacher. Ellen was daughter of Danish parents, Carl and Marie Christensen Jensen. (IPAHawaii and Sharma)
Ellen’s sister, Elsie Jensen, was born in 1903 in Portland, Oregon. “Elsie’s particular interest of course was art and I well remember the day when she graduated from high school and Mama said to her, Mama being a very strong-minded woman, ‘I would like you to stay out of school for a year and spend the time on music.’”
“Elsie stamped her foot on the floor and said, ‘If I can’t spend the time on art, I won’t do anything.’ And of course that was what she was intended to do because she became a very fine artist and designer.” (Watumull)
She attended Portland Art School, and on her twenty-first birthday moved to San Francisco and began to study art at UC Berkeley. However, Elsie did not find herself engaged in her design class. Elsie traveled to Hawaii in 1928 to visit her sister, Ellen. Elsie then started working at Watumull’s East India Store as a window display designer.
In 1931, she followed in her sister’s footsteps and married an Indian man living in Hawai‘i, Upendra Kumar Das. Their daughter, Patricia Naida, was born in 1930.
Upendra Kumar Das was a biochemist who worked as the head of research at the Hawaiian Sugar Planter’s Association (HSPA). He died in an explosion at his workplace in 1937. (Honolulu)
In 1936, Das worked with her brother-in-law to develop the first Hawaiian fabric prints. Initially, she painted by hand in one color on Fuji silk, and then she started hand-blocking prints in Watumull’s home basement. Later, she moved her art studio to a large office, complete with supporting staff, in the Watumull Building on Fort Street.
Watumull’s East India Store commissioned artist Elsie Das to create hand-painted floral designs on silk for interior decoration. Her clothing designs would come later. (Honolulu)
Das’ designs were an instant success and a tremendous boost to the business. The Watumull name became synonymous with Aloha apparel, which became a part of Hawaiian culture and history.
Das is credited with pioneering the Aloha shirt as we know it today; Hawai‘i’s scenery, from the Ko‘olau Mountains to palms, volcanoes and beaches – not to mention its exotic maidens, provided ample material for colorful and sometimes outrageous patterns. By the mid-1930s, the aloha shirt was here to stay. (Allen)
Before World War II, she studied Japanese ink painting in Kyoto. During the war, she was the first woman to design camouflage for the US engineers in Honolulu. It is said that every strategic spot between Honolulu and Wake Island was camouflaged with Elsie Das designs. (Hope)
Artists and designers began to interpret their island surroundings. Elsie and others started to create their own designs substituting what had traditionally been Japanese styled motifs and prints on the imported fabrics.
Diamond Head was substituted for Mt. Fuji, Japanese pine tress changed to coconut tress, and thatched huts with ocean scenes and surfers, canoes on waves, canoes sailing, fish and flowers replaced bamboo, cranes, tigers and shrines that characterized the first prints from the Orient. (Hope)
In 1953, she opened a Honolulu dress shop featuring her original Hawaiian sportswear, and he’ pieces were the feature of sold-out lunchtime fashion shows at the prestigious Outrigger Canoe Club in the mid-1950s. (Hope)
Elsie Das twice won the John Poole Memorial Award for distinguished block printing. She was honored with a one-woman show at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and articles about her work appeared in national newspapers and magazines such as House and Garden and The Christian Science Monitor. Das died in 1962. (Lots of information here is from Hope, Honolulu, Watumull, Allen and Sharma.)