Over the last century, from the golden sands of the Seven-Mile Miracle to the many anonymous town centres of Northern Europe, Hawaiian shirts have become a staple of the sartorial milieu. But have you ever stopped to wonder a little about how these bright patterned button-downs came about?
As with everything of similarly iconic status, there is dispute over who exactly should take the credit (or bear the burden) for introducing them to the world. However, we’ve done our best to summarise the main origin stories for you here.
They all begin in the early 20th century on – you guessed it – the island of Oahu. Although the islands were still independent politically, US businessmen were already arriving in their droves to buy up Hawaii’s fertile lands and turn them into plantations. These plantations required workers and so they were parachuted in from Japan, Portugal and all four corners of the Pacific, with each group bringing with them their own customs, languages and most importantly for this story- clothing.
The inception of the Aloha shirt represents an almost-perfect melding of all these cultural influences. It adopted the shape of a ‘palaka’; a western work shirt worn by plantation workers. It was cut from Japanese fabric’s originally used for kimonos and worn like a Filipino ‘barong tagalog’; a type of loose-fitting dress shirt, always untucked outside of the trousers.
Most accounts suggest the earliest examples were made by Japanese and Chinese tailors, who had originally come over to work in the plantations.
One story goes that in the early 1930s Hollywood actor John Barrymore walked into a shirtmaker’s shop in downtown Honolulu, ran by a Japanese tailor named Musa-Shiya and requested a shirt made from gaudy Kimono material. Prior to that, Musa had never made a bright print shirt, but after he liked how it turned out, he decided to run out a few more. In 1935 he placed an advert for his new range in the Honolulu Advertiser Newspaper which said “Aloha shirts — well-tailored, beautiful designs and radiant colors.”
Then, the following year a Chinese-Hawaiian tailor named Ellery Chun trademarked the name, hanging his own brand of bright print ‘Aloha Shirts’ made from leftover Kimoni material in the window of his Honolulu store. At around the same time, just up the street in the Ala Moana Shopping Centre, another business called Musashiya and Surfriders Sportswear were making shirts out of similar material, featuring palm trees, hula-girls and pineapples. They called theirs ‘Hawaiian shirts’ and thus the two names were born.
While these are the most widely accepted accounts, local lore offers a variety of other origin stories. One tale credits a Hawaii University student named Gordon Young with creating the pre-cursor to the Aloha shirt in the early 20’s. He reportedly worked with his mother’s dressmaker to create shirts made of light Japanese cloth, that sported bright bamboo patterns and geometric shapes, which he then sold to his mates at Uni. Another tells of a man named Rube Houseman, who was friends with many of the legendary beach boys; guys like Panama Dave, Colgate and William “Chick” Daniels. Rube reckons he too was making Aloha shirts in the early 30’s and recalls how after surfing, he and the boys would head to a bar called the Rathskellar in downtown Honolulu which was popular among locals and visiting celebs, sporting their wildest most vividly coloured examples.
Whoever invented them- by the late 1930’s Aloha shirts had become a must-have for cruise ship tourists. Their bright bold patterns and breezy fit embodied the mainlander’s island idyll, serving as the perfect keepsake from the trip; like ‘a wearable postcard’ as one marketing agency put it. Over the following decades, the shirts gained more exposure, appearing draped over the torsos of everyone from Elvis Presley to Presidents Harry Truman.
As well as their soaring popularity as casual wear, the shirts also played an important role in the formation of a modern office-wear tradition.
Despite the hot climate, throughout the first half of the 20th century, Hawaii’s professionals were required to wear suits to work, even in stifling buildings without air con. So in 1966 a lobbying organisation called the Hawaii Fashion Guild launched Aloha Friday; an initiative which encouraged state legislators and businessmen to don their cooler, more casual Aloha attire at work. The campaign was a romping success- shifting the entire culture around work clothes in the country* and forming the precursor to ‘Casual Friday’s’ which later caught on in schools and workplaces across the Western world and still exists to this day.
In the late 60’s Californian surfers returned from the North Shore wearing Aloha shirts and boardshorts, spurring US manufacturers to start making and selling the garments to mainlanders looking to emulate the look. Of course, this appropriation ultimately lead to the downfall of the authentic island based makers, with big chains like Costco and Walmart importing imitation shirts made in bulk with synthetics like nylon and polyester, pricing smaller Hawaii based outfits out of the market.
In many ways then, it seems the history of the Aloha shirt perfectly mirrors the history of surfing itself. What begun as a melding of cultures from different corners of the Pacific, quickly became an authentic celebration of Hawaiian identity, before being adopted by the west either as a way of revering that culture, or as a way of ripping it off and undercutting it in order to generate profit. We’ll let you decide which.
*(To this day, many Hawaiian professionals still wear tucked-in aloha shirts and belted chinos daily.)