The Land of Aloha Shirts
There is no other piece of clothing more recognizable around the world than the Aloha shirt. Its signature bold designs and vivid colors have been known to induce feelings of the “Aloha Spirit” whether near or far to the islands of Hawaii. Aloha shirts have come to symbolize a lifestyle that honors quality before quantity and reflects the romance and beauty of this alluring state. Many different stories have been passed down through generations regarding the origins of the Aloha shirt. Was it one man and his hand held sewing machine or the accumulation of immigrant influence and trade? Whatever the case, the industry of Aloha shirts has evolved from a simple “side job” operation into a multimillion-dollar export business.
In the 1850s, immigrants from Japan and China worked as contract laborers on Hawai‘i’s sugar and pineapple plantations where they were paid a meager salary of $3.00 a day. As a way to supplement their income, many immigrants opened up small businesses—the majority being custom tailor shops. These shops would often specialize in making plantation uniforms. For women, the kimono was a typical working uniform, and for men, a simple short-sleeved shirt. The materials used to make these garments came from fabrics specially imported from Asian countries. Japanese printed silk and a type of cotton kimono called yukata, which was usually made of cotton for everyday clothing, influenced the creation of the Aloha shirt. As Hawaii travel and tourism began to grow, tailors shifted their production interests from work clothes to casual and leisurely wear—this is where the Aloha shirt began its modish journey.
The first Aloha shirts have been spotted as far back as the 1920s. Punahou High School graduate, Ellery Chun, is often credited with marketing the first Aloha shirt. Graduate of the class of 1927, he remembers his classmates wearing large, collared tops with elaborate floral designs. Ten years later, Chun hit success by designing and selling the bold and lively garments, establishing a thriving business and trademarked the term “Aloha Shirt.” An excerpt from The Aloha Shirt: The Spirit of the Islands recalls Chun saying, “There was no authentic Hawaiian material in those days so I bought the most brilliant and gaudy Japanese kimono material, designed the shirts, and had a tailor make a few dozen colorful short sleeved shirts, which I displayed in the window with the sign ‘Hawaiian Shirts’ and they sold remarkably well.” Even though Chun trademarked the terms “Aloha Sportswear” (1936) and “Aloha Shirt” (1937), another famous tailor by the name of Musa-Shiya, “the shirt maker,” was the first to actually advertise the words “Aloha Shirt” in a 1935 print ad in the Honolulu Advertiser.
The years 1930–1950 marked the “Golden Age” of the Aloha shirt era and by 1936, there were already 275 tailors in Honolulu. During this time, production was at an all time high and the only way for manufactures to keep up with demand was to replace their tailor-made shirts with ones that were produced in factories. This kept the industry growing at a rapid pace until 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. World War II changed life on the islands—especially the tourism industry. The garment market, which greatly catered to vacationers, had slowed in a way that no one could have ever expected. But still, the Aloha shirt business managed to live on. How? Even though tourism had come to a halt, it was replaced with three new consumers: servicemen, locals and island retail outlets. Servicemen would take the shirts home and present them as bright souvenirs, symbolic of such a dark time. Due to the decrease of imported retail, locals soon adopted the Aloha shirts into their daily wardrobe as it was readily available for their clothing needs. Stores that were once vacant now had a product hot on the shelves and it was beginning to look like everyone wanted a piece of Hawai‘i.
Hollywood’s love affair with the Hawaiian Islands also played a major role in the growing popularity of the Aloha shirt. Everyone from Bing Crosby to Harry Truman owned one proving that it didn’t matter who you were—anyone could use a fashionable dose of aloha in his life. Elvis Presley donned a red Aloha shirt designed by Alfred Shaheen on the album cover for the 1961 soundtrack of “Blue Hawaii.”
As more celebrities were spotted wearing these shirts, the alluring idea of Hawai‘i as an exclusive and luxurious destination also grew exponentially. More vacationers flocked to the Islands, which meant a rise in tourism and with more tourists—more sales. With an influx in sales came the flow of money, which kept Hawaii’s economy afloat and the garment industry happily expanding.
Today, Hawaii’s clothing industry is backed by professional designers with new products for a new market. Gone are the lazy days of old Hawaii when beach boys ran the town, when people were considered to be “rebels” if they showed up to work in those “loud and boisterous things,” where the fusion of cultures produced a garment out of necessity but wanted as fashion. In recent times, Aloha shirts have evolved with Hawaii’s businessmen in mind—loud and fun prints have been replaced with subdued, neutral colors and tasteful Polynesian patterns. Many mainland offices have even worked the Hawaiian shirts into their dress code under the term “Casual Friday” or “Business Casual.”
For the past 50 years, the Aloha shirt has been the unofficial ambassador of Hawai‘i. No other piece of clothing more accurately captures the evolution of this phenomenal state. From the development of its humble immigrant beginnings to its current nationally recognized status, both the Aloha shirt and the Aloha State are one in the same.