Support Crosscut

Aloha shirts: 75 years of style, spirit

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

As might be expected, the designs merge several of the ethnic backgrounds of Hawaiians, beginning with early 20th-Century Filipino plantation workers, and picking up Polynesian and Japanese influences in the 1920s and ’30s.

After World War II much more diverse (and often wild) patterns opened the golden age of the aloha shirt, lasting through the 1950s. Shirts from that era are now collectors’ items — check your attic; that shirt with the hula girls, surfboards, and palm trees may be worth a bundle!

These designs were so diverse, so jammed-together that they were often known as “hash” or “chop-suey” and they might have included (to cite a few from Brown and Arthur): hula dancers, net-throw fishermen, surfers, exploding volcanoes, palm trees, fishhooks, musical instruments, feather capes, every sort of flower and a variety of actual people, ranging from Hawaiian royalty to Waikiki beach boys. Aloha shirts were worn in movies (most famously in From Here to Eternity) and by Elvis Presley and television pioneer Arthur Godfrey.

The market for outrageous patterns died in the 1960s and patterns turned to floral or geometric designs on cotton or silk. The industry began promoting aloha wear for both leisure and work and in 1966 an official “Aloha Friday” was proclaimed. Aloha wear became universal for businesses and offices. On the mainland, the California surfing craze popularized aloha wear.

I worked in Honolulu for several months during the 1980s and acquired a taste for aloha shirts. It was a high time for the fashion. Carol D’Angelo, curator of the historic costumes museum, told me, “In the ’80s, there was a revival of Hawaiian culture. This included more hula shows, aloha prints with historic Hawaiian themes, and more aloha wear in general. Now the stores are catering to mostly Japanese tourists who like to come here and buy designer wear. The designer wear is so much cheaper here than it is in Japan. When they buy Hawaiian, they buy other items and not aloha wear.”

You see that at Ala Moana Center, the famous Honolulu mecca for visitors in search of Hawaii fashion and kitsch. Before the hurricane and tsunami, Japanese tourists are in the high-fashion stores and young people are sporting t-shirt fashion. But on the streets, the locals are still in aloha shirts, as are salespeople in stores and workers in offices. (Speculation about Japanese tourism is moot right now; this story was reported  just before the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. But the Japanese are resilient, and love Hawaii; they will be back even if there is a temporary downturn in their numbers.)

The big kahuna in the field is Tori Richards, a Honolulu firm still making many of its better shirts in Hawaii (many aloha shirts are made in China). Stores ranging from Sears to Nieman-Marcus have selections, with prices to match. Tori Richards makes low- and high-price aloha wear (Seattle icon Nordstrom’s, relatively new here, has a small but distinguished selection).

What’s the difference in shirts, other than pattern? Cotton shirts are cool and durable, silk lends itself to very fashionable designs, and rayon is cheap but clings in humid weather. You can tell a good shirt when you put it on; it’s well constructed, roomy, and the print is in —not on — the fabric.

Today’s aloha shirts are not as radical in design as collector items from the ’50s; but the best shirts still contain the essence of the islands, and are like nothing else in the fashion world, 75 years after they burst on the scene.

Support Crosscut