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Aloha shirts: 75 years of style, spirit

Aloha wear can be symbolic of good times for visitors from Washington and elsewhere, but it remains a part of life on the islands.

The author on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. The Royal Hawaiian Hotel is in the background.

The author on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. The Royal Hawaiian Hotel is in the background. Courtesy of Floyd McKay

Tired of the rain and cold? Take a trip to your closet and reach way, way in the back and pull out that aloha shirt — yes, the one with the pineapples and surfboards. Now, put it on and pretend that it's Aloha Friday and all around you people are wearing the same garb.

Hawaiians are, after all, the nation's happiest people, certified as such by the venerable Gallup Poll and touted by the New York Times.

That could be because of the blue skies, warm water, and sandy beaches, of course. But an argument could be made —has been made — that the glue that holds this polyglot state with no ethnic majority together is the ubiquitous aloha wear and the spirit it represents.

Aloha wear is noting its 75th birthday. Although setting an exact date for the invention of a fashion design is dicey at best, a Honolulu merchant named Ellery Chun trademarked the label "Aloha Wear" in 1936 and "Aloha Shirt" in 1937. (Some accounts differ slightly.) Handmade garments were soon manufactured and an iconic fashion item was born.

Aloha wear includes shirts most often worn by men and patterned dresses for women, the loose-fitting mu'umu'u, the fitted holoku (both the mu'umu'u and the holoku date to the missionary era in the 19th century) and the sarong famously popularized by a sultry Dorothy Lamour in a series of "Road to . . ." films with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

Visitors to Hawaii quickly pick up the style and utility values of aloha wear, particularly shirts: the style is informal, festive, and a bit daring; the utility is the open collar and straight tails, worn outside the trousers, ideal for warm weather — isn't that why you brought it home in hopes of a warm summer in Seattle?

Washingtonians love Hawaii. Last year 441,878 of us visited Hawaii; Sea-Tac was the fourth-most-popular departure for the islands, behind Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. Hawaii is a neighbor state, albeit separated by a bit of water, but the island water is warm and the sun is predictable. Aloha wear reminds us of a good vacation.

But for Hawaiians, aloha wear means much more. It's indigenous, invented and produced here, and it cuts across ethnic borders. Hawaii is a genuine melting pot, where haoles (Caucasians) are not a majority, nor is any other ethnicity. Large populations are native Hawaiian, Polynesian, and every Asian ethnicity; there are smaller numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics.

Many Hawaiians are of mixed ethnicity (think Barack Obama, born in Honolulu of black and white parents). Nearly one in four people in Hawaii identified as "mixed race" in the 2010 census. The largest combination was Asian-Native Hawaiian.

For this "mixed bag," aloha wear is a unifying symbol. Authors DeSoto Brown and Linda Arthur (The Art of the Aloha Shirt), explain:

People in Hawaii often choose to identify themselves in two ways, both as members of a particular ethnic group and as 'local.' Despite the passage of time and the effects of acculturation, many people retain aspects of their original ethnic heritage, participating in festivals and events, eating certain foods, speaking native languages and observing various religions. But, especially for the many people with multiple ethnic backgrounds, the larger identification if being 'local' — that is, being from Hawaii regardless of race-is important. The proud expression of this localness can range from speaking pidgin to wearing Hawaii's aloha attire. In a way, the aloha shirt is a unifying symbol of the aloha spirit, a major theme in Hawaii's representing goodwill within a diverse community.

The book by Brown and Arthur (who are at the Bishop Museum and University of Hawaii, respectively) is only one of several serious books and articles devoted to aloha wear; it's serous business in the islands and a major export. A large collection of classic aloha wear at the University of Hawaii serves as a virtual museum of the fashion. Click here to take a look.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Mar 30, 11:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Denny Fleenor at Washington State University informs me that Linda Arthur, whose book is quoted above, is now at WSU and has taken a collection of aloha shirts to the Palouse. Arthur, now Linda Arthur Bradley, is heading up a
big show of Hawaiian textiles beginning April 7, and she plans an aloha shirt competition on campus April 21. Check the announcement at http://cahnrsnews.wsu.edu/2011/03/08/hawaiian-textiles-exhibit-opens-at-wsu-on-mom's-weekend/. Cougars in aloha shirts. Oh my!

Posted Wed, Mar 30, 12:24 p.m. Inappropriate

I love those "Aloha" shirts. And the beauty of them are no two seem to be alike. At leastways no two in my closet are the same. And putting one on does say "Vacation!" Even when it's a backyard BBQ. And I agree, cotton makes the best ones. Silk doesn't hold up and loses it's shape when it gets really hot and damp. Rayon does stick to everything and feels heavy.

GaryP

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