A Brief History of the Hawaiian Shirt


Colorful? Yes. Comfortable? For sure. Tacky? Depends on who you ask. Hawaiian—or “Aloha”—shirts are among the world’s most polarizing garments. Their vibrant journey to the mainland and beyond is a tale of surfers, sailors, and cultural crossroads.

Tropical Ancestry

Though Hawaii was still self-governed during the 1880s, U.S.-run businesses dominated the local economy. Seeking cheap labor, American plantation owners enlisted workers from elsewhere. Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and, in the largest numbers, Japanese immigrants came pouring over.

Fittingly, Aloha shirts have Japanese roots. Those who’d left their homeland often brought with them bright kimono fabrics. Meanwhile, Filipino and Chinese newcomers brought barong talongs (a traditional type of untucked shirt) and multicolored silks, respectively. 

On top of those foreign influences, Hawaiian shirts were also inspired by native fashions. Before the 1800s, most Hawaiians created clothes with tapa (or “kapa”) cloth. Made from tree fibers, the material was colored with red and yellow vegetable dyes, which tended to fade fast.

When the age of plantations arose, new fabrics caught on. Working in the fields required tough, heavy, and reasonably cheap clothing. Enter the palaka. Named after the Hawaiian word for “frock,” these checkered, denim items were perfect for outdoor drudgery. However, unlike true Alohas, they mostly had long sleeves.

Creation and Early Rise

Historians agree that the first bona fide Hawaiian shirts emerged in the 1920s. Though we don’t know who originally came up with the concept, some founding fathers deserve shout-outs.

In the '20s, University of Hawaii student Gordon Young worked with his mother’s dressmaker to develop a “pre-aloha shirt.” For fabric, they chose Japanese yukata cloth, which is usually used in light robe construction. Patterns included bamboo and geometric shapes over white backgrounds. Soon enough, his classmates started rocking similar tops. Young would later attend the University of Washington, where this revolutionary fashion statement turned plenty of heads.

Aloha shirts also owe a tremendous debt—and their very name—to Chinese-Hawaiian businessman Ellery Chun. After graduating from Yale with a degree in economics, Chun returned to his family’s dry good store in Honolulu in 1931. With the Great Depression in full swing, Chun’s establishment—like thousands of others—looked destined for collapse.

Then, in 1936, a light bulb went off. As he told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin many decades later, “I got the idea to promote a local style of shirt.” Like Young, he chose yukata cloth, and Chun's sister Ethel created tropical designs. Their finished products were placed “in the front window of the store with a sign that said ‘Aloha Shirts.’” (Being business-savvy, he copyrighted the term.) “They were a novelty item at first,” says Chun, “but I could see that they had great potential.” He wasn’t wrong.

Shortly thereafter, Hawaiian shirts underwent mass production. On the front lines stood Alfred Shaheen, a WWII veteran who’d set up his own clothing business (“Shaheen’s of Honolulu”) in 1948. Alohas were his big specialty, and as sales boomed, he hired a team of local artists to design lively motifs that included Japanese, Chinese, and Hawaiian imagery. By 1959, Shaheen had 400 employees and netted over $4 million in annual profits, making him the new state’s foremost Aloha shirt manufacturer.

A hit with beach-goers, the product also presented off-duty naval servicemen with a striking alternative to their drab uniforms. Upon returning home, recruits would bring along their new souvenirs. Coupled with the dawn of commercial airline flights to Hawaii, this drove sales through the roof. As one marketing campaign put it, they were effectively “wearable postcards.”

Hollywood star power added yet another boost. Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra famously donned Alohas in 1953’s From Here to Eternity. Bob Hope sported several throughout his The Road film series. And Elvis Presley stunned fans in a bright red one on the cover of the Blue Hawaii soundtrack in 1961.

Of course, the fact that several Presidents (such as Harry Truman and Richard Nixon) have been pictured wearing them didn’t hurt, either. However, Hawaii native Barack Obama drew a line in the sand and publicly declined to sport an Aloha shirt at the 2011 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) held in Honolulu. Traditionally, world leaders are expected to pose for a group photo while wearing some article of clothing that represented the host nation. This time, however, America’s commander-in-chief made compliance optional.

“Two years ago, when I was in Singapore and it was announced that we would be hosting the APEC Summit here in Honolulu, I promised that you would all have to wear aloha shirts or grass skirts," Obama reminded his colleagues. "But I was persuaded by our team to perhaps break tradition, and so we have not required you to wear your Aloha shirts, although I understand that a few of you have tried them on for size, and we may yet see you in them in the next several days."

Ultimately, no one put theirs on come picture time. 

“Aloha Fridays”

If your workplace relaxes its dress code once a week, go ahead and thank tropical garb devotees. Hawaii can get unrelentingly humid, which isn’t the best environment for dark, heavy business suits. The '60s saw Honolulu’s fashion industry launch “Operation Liberation,” a campaign designed to promote the wearing of lighter, more informal duds around Hawaiian offices.

Aloha shirts were the movement’s centerpiece—proponents even gave two free ones to every single member of the State Senate and House of Representatives. Their efforts paid off and over the summer of ’66, government employees were encouraged to wear Hawaii shirts on Fridays. Once that custom—dubbed “Aloha Fridays”—reached America’s lower forty-eight, it adopted a new name. Today, we call it “Casual Friday.” 

Helen Maybanks, (c) RSC
Pop Culture
Royal Shakespeare Company Auctions Off Costumes Worn By Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, and More
Helen Maybanks, (c) RSC
Helen Maybanks, (c) RSC

The stages of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England have been graced by some of the most celebrated performers of our day. Now, the legendary theater company is giving fans a chance to own the original costumes that helped bring their characters to life. On April 17, more than 50 costumes worn in RSC productions will hit eBay to raise money for the group's Stitch in Time campaign.

With this new campaign, the RSC aims to raise enough money to renovate the aging workshop where costume designers create all the handmade garments used in their shows. Following a play's run, the costumes are either rented out to other theaters or kept safe in the company's museum collections. Designers often make duplicates of the items, which means that the RSC is able to auction off some of their most valuable pieces to the public.

The eBay costume auction includes clothing worn by some of the most prolific actors to work with the company. Bidders will find Patrick Stewart's beige shorts from the 2006 production of Antony and Cleopatra, David Tennant's white tunic from 2013's Richard II, Ian McKellen's red, floor-length coat from 2007's King Lear, and Judi Dench's black doublet from 2016's Shakespeare Live! Costumes worn by Anita Dobson, Susannah York, and Simon Russell Beale will also be featured.

All proceeds from the auction go to restoring the RSC's costume workshop. Shakespeare fans have until April 27 to place their bids.

Patrick Stewart in Antony and Cleopatra.
Pascal Molliere, (c) RSC

Actors in stage play.
Manuel Harlan, (c) RSC

Actor in stage play.
Kwame Lestrade, (c) RSC
This 3D Human Modeling App Could Revolutionize Online Clothes Shopping

A team of academics in Hong Kong have developed a 3D human modeling app that could drastically change the way we shop online. Dubbed 1Measure, this “one-click measure” tool allows users to record their body measurements in a matter of seconds by uploading two full-body photos.

After snapping images with both a front view and side view, the app uses artificial intelligence to create a 3D digital model of the user's body in under 10 seconds. Next to this image, over 50 size measurements are displayed, including everything from knee girth to shoulder slope. This information can be saved and accessed at a later date, and the app also lists your size in other countries, allowing you to shop for clothes around the world with ease.

This revolutionary technology was developed by associate professor Tracy P.Y. Mok and PhD graduate Dr. Zhu Shuaiyin of the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU).

Other current technologies are capable of carrying out similar modeling functions, but the PolyU team says these methods involve costly, bulky scanners, and their results are only approximate. The 1Measure app’s margin of error is 1 centimeter for users photographed in tight-fitting clothes, and 2 centimeters for those in loose-fitting clothes, according to its developers.

The app is particularly useful when it comes to online shopping. Dr. Zhu says the technology “frees us from the limitations imposed by taking body measurements physically, helping customers to select the right size in online clothing purchases.”

The app can also store multiple measurements at once and track any changes that the body undergoes, making it suitable for those with fitness goals.

1Measure is free to download and is currently available on the App Store in both English and Chinese.


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