Article: The Roots of the Aloha Shirt


Hawaiian Style: The Roots of the Aloha Shirt

By Maribeth Keane and Brad Quinn

In this interview, author and scholar Dr. Linda Arthur talks about the evolution and history of the aloha shirt.

Historically, the men in Hawaii wore a loincloth while the women wore a tiny skirt made out of kapa. When westerners arrived—Captain Cook showed up in 1798—the men in his crew were wearing a loose, square-cut frock shirt with long sleeves and a loose collar. Those were the first shirts on the island.

The Hawaiians bartered for the shirts as soon as they could. It was a mark of status to be able to wear new Western-style clothes. By the end of the 19th century, that first shirt had been reduced in size to what most men’s shirts look like today—just the square-cut shirt with buttons down the front.

This eventually evolved into the aloha shirt. A heavy, blue-and-white plaid cotton fabric arrived from Germany in the 1800s—the material ended up being called palaka in Hawaii and they used it to make long-sleeved shirts. Because the fabric was very heavy, it was useful on the sugarcane and pineapple plantations.

Originally the shirts offered some protection for the workers in the fields, but in the early 1900s, they started cutting off the sleeves and using a lighter-weight fabric, which was also called palaka. The shirt went from being a kind of jacket to what we recognize today as an aloha shirt.

In 1820, the missionaries arrived, creating permanent settlements of Western residents. They started private schools in Hawaii for their children. One of the first schools was Punahou, which was where President Obama went to school. By the 1920s, a middle class had already developed. There were people who had leisure time, and they wanted something other than work clothes.

A group of guys in the private schools decided they wanted to have matching shirts just for fun. So they went to Chinese tailors, who did most of the clothing production on the islands in the ’20s and ’30s, and picked brightly printed Japanese crepe, which had been intended for little-girls’ kimonos—there were a lot of Japanese on the islands, so the tailors kept the fabric in inventory.

The shirt was worn outside the pants, not tucked in, which was a radical idea at the time. That tradition came from the Filipinos who were on the islands and wore a traditional men’s garment called the barong tagalog that’s also worn outside the pants. It’s made in a sheer white fabric with embroidery around the placket in the front. These shirts were originally made of pineapple fiber, but now many materials are used.

So there were five cultures involved: You had a Western body, a Japanese fabric, Chinese tailors, a Filipino style, and it was made in Hawaii. Throughout the 1930s, the early aloha shirts continued to be made of Japanese fabric, but by the late ’30s, you began to see Hawaiian prints being produced on the islands. The fabric was actually plain white and was stamped with designs that were Hawaiian in character.

The term “aloha shirt” was actually trademarked in 1936 by Ellery Chun. He had a dry-goods store and he coined the term, but it was a couple of years later that the actual Hawaiian prints started to be mass-produced.

Collectors Weekly: Why are aloha shirts called Hawaiian shirts on the mainland?

Arthur: “Aloha” is pretty much a Hawaiian term. Not that many people on the mainland understand it except that it has to do with “hello.” In Hawaii it means a lot more. Everything in Hawaii is about aloha, which is the spirit of love and cooperation and all that. They were called aloha shirts from 1936 on, but when people from the mainland started wearing them, they just called them Hawaiian shirts, probably because they didn’t really understand the concept of aloha.

Collectors Weekly: When did clothing companies come into the picture?

Arthur: Kamehameha was one of the first in the late 1930s. There was also Branfleet, which is now Kahala. It’s gone through a number of changes, but Kamehameha was one of the first big ones. Shaheen, however, was the most significant early company; it began in 1948.

Alfred Shaheen really made the aloha shirt the icon it is today. He made it into art. The original aloha shirts were called hash prints. Hash is food that is made by throwing whatever is left over into the pot. So they called these early aloha shirts “hash prints” because they literally slapped a hodgepodge of images onto a shirt using linoleum stamps of varied motifs. While it was certainly design, whether it was art is open to debate.

Shaheen hired artists and put them on salary, which was unheard of at that time. He took the designers to various locations throughout Asia and the Pacific to inspire their textile designs. For example, Shaheen chartered a plane to Tahiti and left the artists there for a week to absorb the design elements. Many of the Shaheen designs clearly show that multi-ethnic influence.

Some of the aloha shirts from the classic period—’45 to ’55—were called silkies, even though the fabric was heavy rayon, which really absorbed the dyes. You got really intense colors that way. Even though these shirts were mass-produced, they routinely sell from $10,000 to $15,000 at auction today. The quality of the artwork is stunning.

Up until the 1950s, people on the islands depended on imported fabric. One of the problems with being on the islands is that they are 6,000 miles away from everything, including textile mills. Back then it would take nine months to get fabric. In the meantime, their money was tied up in it. So what if something went wrong? When the Korean situation impacted textile trade, Shaheen realized he had to make his own textiles or go out of business.

So he started his own textile printing plant in Honolulu. He used pieces and parts left over from the war to make a textile plant. He developed new processes for making textile dyes, especially metallic dyes, which he often used around the edges of flowers and other motifs to really make them stand out. One of his most famous early designs was created for the shirt Elvis Presley wore on the record cover of “Blue Hawaii.” That’s a very famous print.

Collectors Weekly: When did tourists start coming to Hawaii?

Arthur: Tourism started at the end of the nineteenth century, but got big after World War II. Tourists were the ones to adopt the aloha shirt because it was too wild for the locals. They wouldn’t wear those crazy prints; they liked subtle things, and that’s still true today. The locals’ style of aloha shirt is still very different from the collectible stuff. The really wild, boldly patterned shirts began after the war. Servicemen during the war were buying aloha shirts as quickly as they could get them, and they brought the fad of aloha shirts back to the mainland U.S.

By the ’60s, surfers had brought aloha shirts back to Southern California and developed a craze for them. Those same surfers who brought surfboards and aloha shirts to Southern California in the ’60s are also the people who helped found the casual Friday tradition that was said to have begun in the Silicon Valley. It actually began in Hawaii in 1965 as Aloha Friday. The surfers brought that concept with them to the Silicon Valley.

Collectors Weekly: How did Aloha Fridays come about?

Arthur: Hawaii had always been a very provincial kind of place. Missionaries pretty much started the process of Westernization and missionary values dominated until after it became a state in 1959. People dressed very formally even though it was hot and humid all the time. Nobody had air conditioning, and only a few places have it today because it’s so expensive on the islands.

In Hawaii in the 1960s, people wanted to dress more comfortably. Eventually the legislature came up with a resolution so that people could wear simple aloha shirts on Fridays. And they were required to be really simple—plain fabrics with the only design being on the pocket. Within a few years designs went wild.

Collectors Weekly: Did Hawaiian shirt makers have distributors for their aloha shirts on the U.S. mainland?

Arthur: Yes, a few did, but Shaheen did his own distribution. More than anyone he brought Hawaiian design to the mainland. He had 140 different outlets in mainland stores—big department stores like Bullock’s, Macys, and other top-line stores throughout the country. A couple of companies like Kamehameha tried to export, but didn’t do nearly as well.

Collectors Weekly: Are Kamehameha’s shirts also collectible?

Arthur: They’re very collectible. Some of the early Kamehameha designs from the late ’30s into the ’40s are very collectible. There was an article in “Forbes” magazine about collecting aloha shirts around 2001. And any print that’s been in a movie is collectible.

Collectors Weekly: Who wore aloha shirts on the mainland when they first got popular?

Arthur: Young men, and particularly surfers in the 1960s. Former service people adopted them very quickly. Harry Truman and other politicians, as well as celebrities adopted them for casual dress. Then independent men who could get by without having to wear a suit adopted aloha shirts. It became a lifestyle thing by the ’80s and ’90s for guys who were opting out of the rigid conformity of corporate America.

A lot of celebrities wear them now because the shirts are artistic, valuable, and interesting. It’s a walking art form, and they can afford it. For some of them, the shirt is part of their persona.

Collectors Weekly: What are the common motifs and patterns found on aloha shirts?

Arthur: It’s changed over time. Today it’s primarily Hawaiian motifs—islands, fish, flowers—but historically there’s been a lot of ethnic imagery as well because Hawaii is multi-ethnic. There is no ethnic majority in Hawaii. So you see a lot of Asian motifs in addition to Hawaiian and Polynesian ones, plus a lot of traditional tapa designs.

Every kind of material known to man has been used, but the most valuable shirts are the rayon shirts from ’45 to ’55, and then the fine cottons from the ’50s on. There were some silk shirts, but they’re not as collectible. It’s the quality of the art in the textile that makes them collectible.

Shaheen had the best artists. He was in business from ’48 to ’88. He had the market pretty well cornered. Right now, I’d say the best aloha shirts come from Tori Richard, which is not a person but a Honolulu-based company that’s been around for more than 50 years. They’re like Shaheen in that they market to the whole country, not just Hawaii. They target the resort market.

Another company, Reyn’s, wasn’t so innovative, but they’re known for the reverse print, which is what a lot of the locals wear. You take a piece of fabric and turn it over to the back, which is a lot subtler than the front of the shirt. They basically use the fabric backwards. That started in the ’60s as well.

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