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A Brief History of the Hawaiian Shirt

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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.” 

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Learn to Tie a Tie in Less Than 2 Minutes
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For most men—and Avril Lavigne-imitators—learning to tie a tie is an essential sartorial skill. Digg spotted this video showing how you can tie one the simple way, with a tabletop method that works just as well if you’re going to wear the tie yourself or if you're tying it together for someone else who doesn't share your skills.

The whole technique is definitely easier to master while watching the video below, but here's a short rundown: As laid out by the lifehack YouTube channel DaveHax, the method requires you to lay the tie out on a table, folded in half as if you're about to loop it around your neck.

With the back of the tie facing up, you loop over each end, then twist the thinner of the two loops around itself so it ends up looking like a mini-tie knot itself. You'll end up nestling the two loops together and snaking the thin tail of the tie through the whole thing. Then, essentially all you have to do is pull, and you can adjust the tie as you otherwise would to put it over your head.

Unfortunately, this won't teach you how to master the art of more complicated neckwear styles like the fancier Balthus knot or even a bow tie, but it's a pretty good start for those who have yet to figure out even the simplest tie fashions.

[h/t Digg]

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20 Old Hat Styles Due for a Comeback
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One thing that illustrated and photographic archives have taught us is that people have always known how to rock a stylish piece of headwear. From squat caps to towering toppers, history has produced a hat for every occasion. Here are 20 old styles that, with a healthy dose of fashion and confidence, could still look just as fabulous today.

1. THE CLOCHE

A woman wearing a cloche hat decorated with flowers.
Sasha, Getty Images

The sleek, head-hugging cloche was the perfect companion to the bobbed hairstyle worn by flappers in the 1920s. The hats were typically left plain to emphasize their bell-shaped silhouette, though they also offered a blank canvas for embellishment. The cloche was most popular during the Jazz Age but it’s occasionally incorporated into retro fashion styles today.

2. THE OTTOMAN HEADDRESS

A drawing of a man wearing an Ottoman headdress.

In Ottoman ceremonial costumes, hats played a starring role. The headgear often featured bright colors, feathery ornamentations, and elaborate designs that signified status. The wearer’s class, religion, gender, and clan could all be gleaned from the way the fabric in their headdress was layered.

3. THE BOWLER HAT

Oscar Wilde wearing a bowler hat in 1885.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The top hat was popular in the 19th century but it wasn't always the most practical choice for outdoor activities. When looking for a way to protect the heads of horseback riders from branches, brothers Thomas and William Bowler came up with their namesake cap. The bowler hat was sturdy, compact, and appropriate for most any occasion. Though the bowler hat largely fizzled out by the 1980s, the item's original London manufacturers Lock & Co. still sell thousands each year.

4. THE PILLBOX HAT

Woman wearing a pillbox hat in the 1960s.
Chaloner Woods, Getty Images

Unlike some hats from history, this one was prized for its simplicity. It could be easily identified by its brimless, round shape evoking that of a pillbox. It began gaining steam in the 1930s before reaching peak popularity with First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s.

5. THE FASCINATOR

Victoria Beckham wearing a fascinator in 2007.
Mark Mainz, Getty Images

Depending on the look you’re going for, a fascinator can be worn as a subtle accent item or a show-stealing statement piece. The hat is defined as an ornamental headpiece that’s secured to the crown using a headband or comb. Once they fit that criteria, fascinators can take the form of flowers, feathers, fabric, or whatever else the wearer can engineer to stay on their head. And though they're still popular in the U.K., Americans don't tend to utilize fascinators outside of Derby Day attire.

6. THE TRI-CORNER HAT

A tri-cornered hat from Spain, circa 1780.
Gabriel Bouys, AFP/Getty Images

In 17th century Europe and America, tri-cornered hats, or tricornes, gave men the opportunity to show off their lustrous wigs poking out from beneath the upturned brim. It's no surprise then that the hat style died out with the powdered wig fad, but that doesn't mean it isn't fit for a comeback. Even if wearers don't have wigs to flaunt, they could take a page from our forefathers' book and upgrade the hat itself with feathers, brocades, and fabrics—or maybe just sports insignias.

7. THE DEERSTALKER HAT

British actor Peter Cushing wearing a deerstalker hat circa 1960.
Keystone/Getty Images

If you’ve seen this hat anywhere, it was most likely on the head of someone portraying Sherlock Holmes. The headpiece has been tied to the character since the books were published in the 19th century (it was the illustrations—not the story—that did it, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never mentions the cap in the text). It’s peculiar that an urban detective would be wearing a deerstalker hat in the first place, considering they were designed for hunting game and not tracking clues, but the smartly styled hat's comeback should be ... elementary.

8. THE HENNIN

Illustration of a French woman wearing a hennin in the 15th century.
plaisanter, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

These striking hats were a clear sign of royalty in the medieval era. Reinforced with wire or padding and draped in fine fabric, the cone-shaped hennin is still synonymous with the stereotypical princess today. English hennins were fairly modest in height, but the French version reached up to to three feet and the hat's Mongolian predecessor towered five to seven feet high.

9. THE NEWSBOY CAP

Newsboys in St. Louis in 1910.
Lewis Hine, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This hat goes by many names (the big apple, the eight panel, the Gatsby), but its strongest association is with newsboys at the turn of the 20th century. The floppy, brimmed cap wasn't just popular with the younger working class. It was worn by men across the social ladder and was a common sight on the golf course.

10. THE PEACH BASKET HAT

Actress Marion Davies in a peach basket hat.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The origin of this hat name isn't too hard to figure out: It resembles a bulky, over-turned fruit basket. The peach basket hat first appeared at the start of the 20th century, but it was shunned by many for being an "unpatriotic" display of vanity during the first world war. It was revived in the 1930s and experienced a popularity streak until the 1950s.

11. THE PORK PIE HAT

Actor Buster Keaton wearing his signature pork pie hat in 1939.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This hat is known for having a domed crown inside a pinched rim, creating a shape similar to that of a certain savory pastry. The style was originally worn by women in the 19th century and was later embraced by men’s fashion in the early 1900s (thanks in part to Buster Keaton). It’s not as popular as it was in the 1920s but it recently enjoyed a brief return to the spotlight by way of the Heisenberg character on Breaking Bad.

12. THE CARTWHEEL HAT

Actress Fanny Brice wearing a cartwheel hat circa 1910.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Out of context, a cartwheel hat could be mistaken for an hor d'oeuvres platter or a tiny landing pad. The hat was worn slightly askew for an eye-catching look and was often crafted from luxurious materials. But after catching on in the 1930s, the broad hats have since fallen out of fashion.

13. THE CHAPEAU BRAS

Bicorne hat.
Marie-Lan Nguyen, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

With the chapeau bras, gentlemen in the 18th century proved you don't need to compromise style for convenience. The bicorne shape of the hat was designed to both sit comfortably on a head and fold flat when tucked beneath an arm. The French name roughly translates to "hat arm." It was a popular hat style among military men in the 1800s, including U.S. admiral George Dewey.

14. THE BOUDOIR CAP

Hat on mannequin.

For a brief period at the turn of the 19th century, hair nets were fashionable. Women used boudoir caps to protect their hair while getting dressed in the morning or at night, though more stylish designs also worked as statement-making loungewear. Typically made from silk, muslin, or other lingerie fabric, the cap was the perfect companion to the kimono negligee, which was just beginning to gain popularity in the West at the time.

15. THE EUGÉNIE HAT

Illustration of Victorian woman.

The Eugénie hat is named after Empress Eugénie de Montijo, one half of France’s last reigning royal couple. It’s traditionally made from felt or velvet and worn tilted forward slightly to cover the wearer's eye. The hat saw an initial popularity spike in the mid-19th century, then a second after Greta Garbo worse a version of it in the 1930 film Romance.

16. THE GAINSBOROUGH HAT

Portrait of woman wearing hat.

Gainsborough hats, or picture hats, were popularized by 18th-century artist Thomas Gainsborough, who often depicted the society women in his portraits beneath massive headwear. The hats are known for their wide brims and over-the-top embellishments. It wasn't uncommon to see women walking around with stuffed birds perched on their hats during the style's peak.

17. THE PAMELA BONNET

Woman wearing bonnet.

Named for the protagonist of Samuel Richardson's 1740 novel, the Pamela bonnet was an elegant hat option for women in the 19th century. It's crafted from straw and tied with a ribbon in such a way that folds the wide brims against the wearer's cheeks. The sides of the hat slope down and away from the head, allowing the woman’s fashionable ringlets to peek out.

18. THE HALF HAT

The Queen wearing a half hat and waving from a car.

The sleek, close hat trend reached its peak in the 1950s with the half hat. Part-hat, part-hair accessory, the half hat cups the back of the skull and curves across the crown, stopping just short of the ears. Milliner Lilly Daché received an American Designer award for the hat in 1941.

19. THE WHOOPEE CAP

Actor wearing a hat.

The whoopee cap is best known as the crown hat Jughead wears in the Archie comics. Instead of buying a professionally-made version from a hat shop, wearers fashioned caps of their own by tattering the brims of old fedoras and turning them inside-out. The style appeared recently on Riverdale, the gritty Archie reboot, so a comeback may be on the way.

20. THE HOMBURG

British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden (right) with Neville Chamberlain, Leader of the Conservative Party, wearing Homburg hats while walking in London in 1937.
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Homburg isn't a household name like the top hat or the fedora, but the men’s hat is still a classic. The style is distinguished by a curled brim and a dent depressing the center of the crown. King Edward VII launched the trend in the late 19th century. When he brought a hat back with him following a visit to Bad Homburg, Germany, the rest of the world noticed his new look and started wearing Homburg hats of their own.

A shorter version of this story originally ran in 2017.

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