2011 marks the 75th anniversary of the aloha shirt. Of course, many of you know us by our trademark aloha shirts, since we have spent so much time in the islands and other warm, tropical climes over the years. Some parts of the world call the aloha shirt by another name, “The Hawaiian shirt”. Even the debt ridden US Postal Service has a line of stamps that feature photos of aloha shirts.
Most aloha shirts are bright and bold, so colorful that it shouts out “visitor” even on the Hawaiian islands. The locals wear the more subdued patterns and colors most of the time. In the old days, guys bought an aloha shirt while on vacation, then stuffed it in the closet for their local Goodwill or Salvation Army (if they would even take it!).
But historically, the aloha shirt is synonymous with the local culture, water sports, sealife, and art. Many aloha prints are created by artists who are closely tied to the Hawaiian Islands. Books have been written about the shirt, including Dale Hope’s “The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands.”
Picture, if you can, the Hawaiians of old who wore very little clothing in the warm tropics. The men wore a loin cloth, the women a pa’u skirt, a gathered 3/4 length skirt. The garments were made from kapa, or barkcloth, made by pounding the paper of the mulberry tree. The women printed the kapa with kukui nut juice, ochre, or charcoal. Most of the designs were graphic and geometric.
Many of the old style graphic prints are popular again today, though adapted to current styles by many aloha shirt makers. But how did the aloha shirt get its name? It turns out that in the mid 1930s, the word “aloha” was attached to many types of merchandise, intended for tourists. This included things like aloha tea sets, aloha coasters, and finally aloha sportswear. The phrase was first published by Musa-shiya the Shirtmaker in The Honolulu Advertiser on June 28, 1935. They were advertised as well tailored, with beautiful designs and radiant colors.
Hawaii is a definite multi-cultural melting pot of ethnicities. As a result, the aloha shirt assumes many aspects of the islands’ cultures. The original style was derived from Western haberdashery with its plackets, buttons, yoke, and sleeves. The first aloha shirts were made from imported Japanese fabrics, with motifs relating to Japanese culture. Today, the strong Asian influence continues, with a definite Chinese palatte, with a clear tie to Hawaiian origins like hula, surfing, canoeing, native flora, and fishing.
The idea of wearing the shirt tail outside the pants was actually derived from the Filipino shirt, called the bayau. This trend has been popular for almost a decade, as men around the world have taken to the untucked look. This extends not just to aloha type shirts, but also to sportswear, and even dress shirts worn with suits and sport coats.
Naturally, vintage aloha shirts are highly valued. A look on ebay or a trip to Goodwill might yield a treasure to two. The experts say that ‘vintage never went away’. Many popular prints originated in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Personally, I do not like the loud two color geometric or floral designs. I prefer the softer, updated look of the Tommy Bahama, or Kahala line. In fact, Kahala Sportswear is celebrating its 75th anniversary. They are credited with being the first company in Honolulu to commercially produce and export aloha shirts. Kahala was founded in 1936 by Nat Norfleet, Sr, and George Brangier.
It turns out that Kahala was a $1 million business by 1959. But their love of the ocean has always been part of their design and history. After 75 years, the aloha shirt has come to embody the aloha spirit, and the spirit of unity in diversity, much like the Islands.
Today, the aloha shirts are printed, mostly short-sleeved, and collared. They usually have buttons, although pullovers are prevalent. Most have a left chest pocket. They are worn by men as well as women. The lower hem is straight, as they are not meant to be tucked in. In Hawaii, they are considered formal wear for business or government. They are the equivalent of a shirt, tie, and jacket in all but the most formal situations. My friends say not to show up in court with an aloha shirt!!
Among the famous aloha shirt wearers: President Harry Truman, President Barack Obama, John Wayne, Elvis Presley, Jimmy Buffet, Johnny Weismuller, Duke Kahanamoku, Senator Daniel Inouye, and Bing Crosby. The dress code at Trader Joe’s includes aloha shirts. In fact, so did my dress code during the last ten years of my working career!
The “aloha” print is prevalent on all forms of souvenirs, clothing and furniture. I have a golf shirt with a definite aloha look. Pillows, blankets, scarves, hats, seat covers for cars, home décor, surfboards, tattoos, and jewelry. It is almost impossible to escape it anywhere on the islands. Along with the sun and surf, it says “Hawaii” over and over.
PS: There is nothing worse than an overweight midwesterner with a bad sunburn, wearing a loud aloha shirt with board shorts or jams in an equally loud Hawaiian print. Kind of like Pee Wee Herman on steroids. In Japan, they would call him chisai Hiroshi.
I ruined a pair of my favorite Puma sneakers. First, on my daily bike ride, I tried to keep the rental bike out of the mud. So, I did the mud walk instead. Then on the kayak/hike/swim, I put the finishing touches on it. Brackish sea water, red mud, and overnight dampness created a stink that Frank Costanza could not match! So, I had to buy a new pair. The young sales clerk did not know that her adidas brand was an acronym for “all day I dream about sex!” That was worth the price of admission.
People wear the darndest things while on vacation. Ethel from Iowa has her perfect pink going on. Pink skin tone, pink slacks, and purple T shirt. If only the folks back home can see her. Oh wait! They will, her endless selfies have captured her perfectly.
Then there is Gus and Joanne from Sheboygan, taking the group tour with a sign tied around their necks, still wearing the lei they received when they landed ten days ago. Not only have they purchased little grass skirts for the granddaughters back home, they also bought miniature ukuleles for each as well. What a sight!