Clothing saleswoman and creator Shannon Hiramoto loves authentic Hawaiian styles. But on a routine visit to a local thrift shop near her home in Kauai, she came across a vintage dress with one word on its tag that leaped out at her, and started a search into her family’s background that would yield an incredible coincidence.
Hobby Leading To Discovery
In 2007, Hawaii native Shannon Hiramoto began her company in a small community on the southside of the Hawaiian rainforest island of Kauaʻi. At her business, called Machinemachine Apparel, Shannon worked with beautiful materials in one of the most beautiful of surroundings. She had grown up on the island, but at the time she wasn’t aware of how her family heritage would come around to make headlines.
Her business was designed to provide women’s clothing that has been ethically produced, including a variety of styles of vintage dress. But unlike many other women her age, Shannon had a unique hobby — one that would eventually lead her to one of the most incredible discoveries of her life.
Where It All Began
Having grown up surrounded by local indigenous fashion designs typical of the Hawaiian Islands, Shannon loved the traditional Hawaiian dress called muʻumuʻu (commonly known as muumuu). These slip-on dresses are renowned for their beautiful and often pleasantly simple patterns and colors, as well as their simple and comfortable design.
Shannon eventually married her husband, Josh, and had a daughter. But all the while she had a serious hobby of searching for new muumuu to add to her collection, particularly if they were vintage. As Shannon doubled both as a businesswoman and a seamstress, she received a parcel from a friend’s mother, who hoped she could use the old muumuu fabric and repurpose it. However, the way Shannon saw it, there was a huge problem.
A Passion For The Fashion
Even though an integral part of her job involved finding new and imaginative uses for old fabrics, Shannon had such a passion for muumuu that she really didn’t love the idea of receiving an exquisitely-made vintage dress and then taking it apart.
The thought of the act just didn’t sit well with her, and what’s more, she was confident that no method of repurposing them could make them look any cooler than they already did in their original form. Her sister and brother-in-law had a better idea for her. If she respected the form, then why not wear that muumuu instead, and flaunt it?
While the muumuu never really went away, it was often regarded as something that older mothers or grandmothers might wear. Shannon decided she would make this traditional vintage dress relevant for people of her generation, and bring awareness to how creative one could be with it.
All month long during January 2014, Shannon wore a new muumuu every day. She documented the brilliant array of colors and styles on her Instagram page, with the hashtag #muumuumonth. From then on, her obsession with this particular type of clothing truly became official. Little did she know what kind of discovery her passion for the style would lead her to.
One day in 2016, Shannon went to pay a visit to a new Salvation Army chapter in the eastern island community of Līhuʻe. It was both a part of how she ran her business as well as indulging in a personal favorite pastime. As she rifled through the sales racks, Shannon was delighted to discover a muumuu among the clothes.
But what stood out to her about this one in particular was how small it was; most muumuus were long and this one was shorter, a rare find. Then she took a look at the tag — and it raised her eyebrows, but not for obvious reasons.
A Curious Surname
As Shannon read the muumuu’s tag, she took note of the fact that the vintage dress had been produced by “Liberty House,” a Hawaiian manufacturing company. But next to it was written an additional piece of information that was surprising to her. It appeared to be a name, Kamei. This name in particular immediately sparked Shannon’s interest.
In fact, it was especially uncommon on Kauai, but for Shannon, it was instantly recognizable and set the gears in her head whirling. The name held a special significance for her. With many questions in her mind, she bought the $4 muumuu and took it home for further investigation.
She knew that Kamei was a last name, however it was rare in Kauai. Still, it had belonged to one individual in particular that Shannon knew of: her own late great-grandmother, Florence Shizuko Kamei. By the time Shannon had bought the muumuu and brought it back home, she already had a peculiar feeling about it.
Then it hit her: perhaps it was her mind playing tricks on her, but she could have sworn she remembered her great-grandmother Florence wearing one almost identical to it. In fact, Florence had even been a muumuu seamstress herself in her youth. Acting on a hunch, Shannon turned to her mother for help.
Trip Down Memory Lane
Shannon enlisted her mother’s assistance to try and identify this specific vintage dress. It would require scouring a vast number of photographs to try and pick out one specific outfit, a very time-consuming task. Together, Shannon and her mom combed through old family photos albums, looking for validation.
They scrutinized each photograph, hoping that a muumuu might pop out at them and prove that the dress had belong to Great-Grandma Florence. But after a few days, their search ran dry. Shannon was about to shrug it off. Then she received a text from her mom that would leave her floored.
Shannon’s mom sent her a text message that would confirm everything Shannon had been wondering. The text was accompanied by a photograph, which, according to Shannon’s mom, just so happened to be the very last photo inside the family’s last photo album.
There were no ifs, ands, or buts about it: there, in living color, was the family matriarch, Florence Shizuko Kamei, wearing the exact same muumuu that her great-granddaughter had miraculously found floating around a thrift shop five years after she had passed away. Shannon was overwhelmed with joy — and then noticed something behind the vintage dress, in the background of the photo.
Locked In On The Location
The photograph of Shannon’s great-grandmother Florence was very zoomed in, portraying its subject in her vintage dress at the foreground, and offering very little clues as to the location it was snapped. Behind Florence, the photo only showed a pair of windows on a white building in the background, behind a flowering hedge of hibiscus.
Yet despite this, Shannon knew immediately where the photo had been taken. Her great-grandmother had posed wearing the muumuu in front of the United Church of Christ in Hanapepe, barely a 15-minute drive away from Shannon’s shop. Armed with this incredible information, Shannon took the muumuu and set out. She had a mission to fulfill.
Channeling Her Ancestors
Thanks to a string of wild coincidences, Shannon was able to do something many people wish they could do to honor the memory of their ancestors and loved ones who have passed on. She put on the muumuu from the Salvation Army.
Proudly flaunting the vintage dress, she posed in the exact same place her great-grandmother had posed, in front of the church, and took a photograph of herself. It was a touching moment, the closing of a circle between four generations of Hawaiian women. As if the other coincidences hadn’t been enough, that church had an importance of its own to Shannon and her family.
Shannon’s great-grandmother, Florence Shizuko Kamei, passed away in 2013. Aged 108, at the time of her death, she was the oldest person in Hawaii, and made newspaper headlines. Shannon’s daughter inherited her middle name, Shizuko, meaning ‘quiet child’ in Japanese — but she was quick to point out how ironic that was, as neither lady possesses that quality!
After her funeral, Florence’s ashes had been interred in the columbarium in the back of the very same church where her great-granddaughter stood, wearing her vintage dress. The muumuu had miraculously found its way back to her family. But its significance bore far greater weight for Hawaiian society.
The muumuu has become popular across the United States as a comfortable house dress for women of all ages, but many of them may not necessarily realize that it has its origin firmly rooted in native Hawaiian tradition. But oddly enough, even the dress itself has a bizarre origin story.
When American Christian missionaries began coming to Hawaii in the 19th century, they chose to impose on the Hawaiian population their manner of dress. In their mind, the amount of bare skin that Polynesians showed was improper. So they made a new design — little did they know how much it would backfire!
The vintage dress style of muumuu had another item of clothing that came before it. Missionaries in Hawaii wanted the local indigenous women to wear dresses that covered them up for foreign Western sensibilities of fashion. That meant long sleeves, and high collars, in a style reminiscent of Mother Hubbard.
Called a holoku, this dress began to evolve, thanks to Hawaii’s hot and humid climate. It became larger, more billowing and loose, to allow cooling air to flow over the body. And underneath this vintage dress style came an undergarment: the muumuu. And Shannon’s love for this dress was about to take the island by storm.
Over the decades, women across the Hawaiian Islands came to enjoy using the muumuu for a variety of purposes. It was comfortable and light enough that it was excellent for swimming, wearing around the house, or even just to go to bed. Printed fabrics in beautiful colors and designs became widely available in Hawaii in the 1930s, and the muumuu took off. Now, it could be worn in public.
Recognizing the potential of the vintage dress and inspired by the challenge her sister and brother-in-law had given her, Shannon started an annual Muumuu Month. And the events surrounding the month of festivities are far more creative than you could ever imagine.
Every January for the past five years, Shannon has made it her mission to spread awareness about the fantastic form of local fashion that she has such a pure passion for. Her incredible discovery of her own great-grandmother’s dress in the thrift shop has only served to give her further inspiration and boost her determination to encourage local women to love their own style.
The month of muumuu-related festivities is far from a costume contest. There are a variety of workshops, as well as ‘repair clinics’ for women to mend their dresses and be in tip-top shape for the month of celebrations. Often, women find that the sleeves in their muumuu have become frayed and need replacing. And there’s a special reason why Shannon is just the right woman to come to.
For Shannon, the trade that she engages in on an everyday basis did not happen organically. Her love for muumuu may have been derived from her sister, brother-in-law, and indeed her great-grandmother, but her love for clothing and for repairing came from yet another family figure.
Her late grandmother, Mildred Hiramoto, had sat her down at age 14 and passed on to her a crucial skill that fewer and fewer boys and girls learn in today’s society: how to sew. For starters, she snatched up some of her grandmother’s old-school polyester fabric and made shorts. Her next project was one that truly required some thinking outside the box.
It was the creativity from her formative years that surely served to propel Shannon into her current profession. When she was just starting out learning her way around a sewing kit, she made her own covers to the seats of her car, a 1969 VW Squareback.
Since then, she’s never turned back. When her grandmother Mildred passed away in 2011, Shannon realized that the skill she had gifted to her decades before would now serve to keep the memory of her love a constant presence in her life. Just this past year, she made a change in her business to ensure she kept up with the times.
Waste Not, Want Not
Shannon’s business model is a rare one, but it’s an idea that’s slowly beginning to take hold, and with time may be able to greatly shift the mass squandering of resources and the environmental pollution that results from it. She decided in 2019 that with so many vintage dress materials at her disposal, there simply was no need to buy any new fabric.
That meant that all of the garments and even home goods that her store produced are now created using fabrics that have been donated, recycled, or repurposed. With just a look around her shop, it’s clear what a fantastic vision she has.
Located within Kauai’s Lawai Warehouse is Machinemachine Apparel, Shannon’s shop. But it’s more than just a place to buy interesting and unique clothes with vintage dress stylings. There’s also a workshop inside, with a collection of tropical plants and surfboards, just in case you forgot you’re in the Hawaiian Islands.
As can be expected from someone with such dedication to the muumuu, she has set aside an entire corner of the warehouse that she lovingly refers to as her Muʻuseum. The muumuus that she collects there are sold, and the profits all go the benefit the Kauai Historical Society — directly benefiting island culture she seeks to honor.
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