The Hawaiian Islands are best known for their beautiful sandy beaches, delicious cuisine, and their spectacular scenery. Like the ukulele, grass skirt, and muumuu dress, the Hawaiian shirt, or Aloha shirt, has become an iconic symbol recognized around the world. The outrageous, brightly colored shirts have been a polarizing garment for nearly 90 years, and a staple among the inhabitants of the island paradise.
Before woven fabrics from Japan, China, and the West made their way to the small island chain, Hawaiian clothes were made from the plants and trees native to the area. Men wore a loincloth, known as a malo, while the women donned the pa´u skirt. Both garments were made from tapa cloth, which was produced from the inner bark of the wauke trees. By the start of the 20th century, the island chain of Hawaii had become a powerful plantation economy that became known for producing coffee, sugar, and pineapple, which the exported around the world.
Those working on the plantations required a rugged shirt, suitable for their long days of labor in the fields. Soon, the checkered blue and white denim shirts, known as palaka, became the standard Hawaiian outfit for the island’s plantation workers. By the start of the 1930s, the palaka Hawaiian shirts for men, along with the blue denim trousers, known as sailor-mokus, became the official Hawaiian costume for both on and off the plantations.
During the rise of the plantations, the plantation owners sought out cheap labor, often bringing over workers from China, Portugal, Korea, and Japan. These new immigrants brought with them, their native textiles and fashions. The Japanese brought bright Kimono cloth, while the Chinese brought over silk. The immigrants from the Philippines brought over their Tahitian pareu and Barong Tagalong. Each of these cultures and their fashion had a direct influence on the Hawaiian shirt.
There is some debate among the locals about who exactly designed the first Aloha shirt, but historians agree that the first bona fide Aloha shirt was first sported during the 1920s. Gordon Young, a student at the University of Hawaii, is considered the father of the pre-aloha shirt. While attending classes, he worked with his mother’s dressmaker to design a custom shirt made from Japanese yukata cloth that included patterns of geometric shapes and bamboo over a white background. Later, Young would transfer to the University of Washington, bringing his crazy Hawaiian shirts with him and creating quite the stir that turned plenty of heads.
It wasn’t until Chinese-Hawaiian businessman, Ellery Chun, placed a Hawaiian Shirt in the window of his family’s dry goods store in 1935, that men's Hawaiian shirts found their place in society. Chun received a degree in Economics from Yale University in 1931. After receiving his diploma, he headed back to his family's dry goods store in Honolulu, King-Smith Clothiers, and Dry Goods. Like thousands of other establishments across the country, the store was on the verge of collapse because of the Great Depression. Chun was desperate to find a way to save his family's store, and in 1935 he decided to promote the local style of shirt. "I got the idea to promote a local style of shirt in the front window of the store with a sign that said ‘Aloha Shirts,'" Chun explained to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin decades later. “They were a novelty item at first,” he explains, “but I could see that they had great potential.
That same year, being the smart businessman that he was, Chun copyrighted the term ‘Aloha Shirt.’ After the first advertisement was published on June 28, 1935, in the Honolulu Advertiser, local surfers and tourists descended on the shop and purchased every shirt in the store. Within a few short years, the shirt began to be mass produced by major designer labels throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Alfred Shaheen, a World War II veteran was on the front lines of the newest fashion craze, opened up a clothing business, Shaheen's of Honolulu, in 1948 and began selling Hawaiian shirts for women and men.
Sales of Hawaiian shirts boomed at Shaheen's of Honolulu. The shirts were so popular that Shaheen hired a team of local artists to create lively motifs that included Chinese, Japanese and Hawaiian imagery. The designs were so popular that by 1959 Shaheen's employed 400 workers and made more than $4 million in profits that year, making Shaheen the foremost Aloha shirt manufacture in the state.
Hawaiian shirts were also a huge hit with beach-goers and off-duty naval servicemen who were looking for an alternative for their drab military uniforms. The servicemen would bring the shirts with them when they returned home, and along with the introduction of commercial airline flights to Hawaii, the sales of the Aloha shirts went through the roof. Stars like Montgomery Clift, Shirley Temple, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra helped boost sales of the shirts after wearing them in their movies.
Men’s Hawaiian shirts weren’t the only piece of clothing to find inspiration in the colorful and crazy fabric brought to the islands in the late 19th century. The muumuu, a loose fitting Hawaiian dress designed to fit women of all sizes, also used the new fabrics for their design. The loose fitting Hawaiian dresses were first introduced to the local population because missionaries wanted to cover the bodies of Hawaiian women, who usually wore nothing more than a skirt. Like with the Hawaiian shirt, muumuus morphed and combined with traditional Asian design, lending to a unique series of women’s Hawaiian outfits. From the tea-timer, which is a tight-fitting, tailored, sleeveless top to the holoku, a full-length Hawaiian dress for formal affairs, the muumuu, features floral designs, like the ginger blossom, hibiscus, orchids, plumeria, and birds of paradise.
By the 1960's Honolulu's fashion industry started the "Operation Liberation" campaign, which sought to promote the wearing of lighter, more casual Hawaiian outfits in local offices. The centerpiece of the movement was the Aloha shirt. After receiving two free shirts by the campaign's proponents, the State Senate and House of Representatives moved to allow government employees the ability to wear Hawaiian shirts on Friday's. The new dress code was dubbed "Aloha Fridays," which eventually made its way to the lower 48 states, and became known as "Casual Friday."
Hawaiian shirts and dresses became so popular in the 1950’s that the market was flooded by cheap imitations and mail order garments. This resulted in the manufactures of the shirts to add the label, “Made in Hawaii” to ensure consumers were getting an authentic Aloha shirt and not a cheap knockoff. Today, the Hawaiian shirt is just as popular today as it was when it was first promoted in 1935.