New month = new garment. This month I will look into the origins of our favourite (and sometimes forgotten) shirts, tops and blouses. Starting with the Aloha Shirt…
AKA: Hawaiian shirt
How to say it: a-lo-ha
- convertible collar
- loose fit
- falls to the hip
- worn un-tucked
- printed with a colourful design
- button-up front
- straight hem
- breast pocket
…of the style: As a piece of fashion, the Aloha shirt has a surprisingly rich history; far, far away from the tacky and brash reputation it has nowadays. It seems the style as we know it is a conglomeration of styles and fabrics that were introduced into Hawaii in the 1920s and 30s. During this time immigrants from all over the world flocked to Hawaii to make their fortunes in the plantations on the islands and brought with them the cloths and clothes of their native lands.
The Japanese brought their bright, silk kimonos, immigrants from the Philippines brought a loose, untucked shirt called a barony tagalong, the Chinese brought bright, formal silk garments and mainland Americans brought the standard shirt. Add to this the bright, geometric block patterns of the native Hawaiians and the roots of the Aloha shirt begin to form.
There were two predecessors of the Aloha shirt – the Palaka shirt; a bright, checkerboard patterned, short-sleeved shirt worn by plantation workers of the era, and the Kimono-cloth shirt. The Kimono-cloth shirt was sewn from bits of old kimonos by Japanese housekeepers for men and boys on the islands.
In the 1930s, Ellery Chun (a Hawaiian local, and widely stated as the man responsible for the popularisation of the Aloha shirt) returned from Yale in the midst of the Great Depression and took over his father’s Dry Goods store in Honolulu. In an attempt to broaden the appeal of the store, Chun and his sister Ethel began selling brightly printed kimono-cloth shirts to the largely Chinese community to which they catered. Around this time kimono-cloth shirts were also being sold by ‘Musa-Shiya the Shirt Maker’ who advertised them as ‘Aloha Shirts’ for 95c each. Musa-Shiya the Shirt Maker eventually became a fabric store called Musashiya Shoten and is still in business today. In 1932 a third business, Surfriders Sportswear Manufacturing, owned by Taw Hi Ho, began making and selling a similar style shirt which was marketed as a ‘Hawaiian Shirt’.
In the beginning, these shirts were made from left over Kimonos and as such, the patterns on them had an understandably Oriental influence, but as the old Kimono fabrics ran out and the Hawaiian-ness of the style developed, manufacturers began to search out local artists to create patterns that were inspired by their island home – palm trees, hibiscus flowers and hula girls soon became popular patterns for the Aloha shirt. Ethel Chun (brother of Ellery) is said to have based some of her designs on her first trip to the mainland USA.
From the get-go the cool, easy styling of the Aloha shirt was popular with locals and tourists alike and it continued to gain popularity through the 1950s (helped by the attention focused on Hawaii when it became a state in 1959), 60s, 70s and 80s. During this time Hollywood seemed to have a small obsession with all thing Hawaiian, as evidenced by the succession of movies ( Blue Hawaii with Elvis) and long running TV programs based in and around the islands (Magnum PI, Hawaii 5-O, Beach Boys). These programs, complete with Aloha-shirt wearing heroes definitely helped keep the Aloha style alive through the decades.
In modern fashion the Aloha shirt is somewhat of a dirty word – cheap, gaudy, ill-fitting tourist versions of the original style have flooded souvenir stores and can be found anywhere that has a beach – the uniqueness and ‘coolness’ of the original Aloha style has been all but lost. Having said that, local Hawaiian clothiers do still produce a muted versions of the shirts which are apparently worn by residents for formal occasions in lieu of a shirt and tie. As well as this, every season or so at least one major fashion house releases garments made in an Aloha-esque print. And while these garments may have lost the cool, easy-going attitude of the original, these high-end cousins somehow manage to keep the true spirit of the Aloha shirt alive.
…of the name: In the Hawaiian language, Aloha is often used as a way of saying hello and goodbye. Retailers used this term as a name for the shirts when they began selling them in the 1930s, I assume as a marketing tool aimed at tourists. The name stuck and in 1936 Ellery Chun trademarked the term, insuring its continued use.
- Back in the day, Ellery Chun’s tailors could make 3 or 4 dozen Aloha shirts at a time.
- President Harry Truman wore an Aloha Shirt on the cover of Life Magazine in 1951.
- Aloha Friday is Hawaii’s version of casual Friday
21st Century Aloha Shirts
Modern Aloha shirts tend to be inspired by the original style rather than replicating the style wholesale. Most often the iconic prints are transported onto modern, trend driven shapes, but every now and then you will find one that still channels the easy, bright, happy-go-lucky outlook of the original Aloha style.
American Vintage, No.21
Moschino Cheap and Chic, Les Prairies de Paris