Hawaiian Shirts: The Canvas of Aloha

In the land of Aloha, you’ll find as many languages as you will cuisines, as many nationalities as you will families. Yet for all the cultures Hawaii encompasses, no single item greater represents this “melting pot of the Pacific” than the Aloha shirt, the original Hawaiian garment.

No two Aloha shirts are alike.

Influenced by an almanac of Asian culture, each shirt design might feature flowers, surfers, ukuleles, volcanoes, activities, birds and so much more. The most authentic patterns—with roots deep in Eastern and Oceanic cultures—become fingerprints of Hawaii: paintings of paradise on the canvas of Aloha. Before Captain Cook’s arrival to the Hawaiian Islands in 1798, native islanders wore decorated kapa cloth made from tree bark. Cook brought the first shirts to the islands with the plain, square-cut, long sleeve attire worn by his ship crew. In the 19th century, missionaries denounced traditional garments and imposed ideals of “appropriate” wear that covered more than a loincloth would. But what Westerners didn’t know is these shirts would evolve into artistic expressions of vibrant island culture.

It was bound to happen.

In the 1920s, a synthesis of Japanese textiles, Cantonese clothiers, Western values and Filipino fashion formed the Aloha Shirt’s beginnings. Locals armed with kimono cloth asked Chinese tailors to fashion buttoned shirts to be worn untucked, similar to the Philippine barong. It was a match made in Hawaii, and couldn’t have happened anywhere else in the world. Soon a craze for “Hawaiian shirts” swept the nation. WWII servicemen brought home unique souvenirs the entire family could wear. Surfers started sporting the colorful, trendy shirts in California. Jet travel propelled the craze throughout the world, and soon celebrities like Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra were wearing the cloth of America’s newest state. In 1966, Hawaii employers instated Aloha Friday, a precedent that soon spread “Casual Fridays” to workplaces throughout the country. However, some see Aloha Wear as inappropriate outside themed parties. GQ columnist Glenn O’Brien once said, “I think [Hawaiian shirts] often represent a sort of desperation of leisure.”

O’Brien missed the mark by an ocean.

Unfortunately, the Hawaiian term aloha—used to express love, cooperation and positive energy—doesn’t translate past “hello” on the mainland. People outside Hawaii won’t understand it unless they’ve felt the spirit of aloha: warmth, affection and respect within a community. Without understanding this concept, people simply associate the shirts with Hawaii, not aloha. Which is why the phrase “Hawaiian shirt” still remains in use today. It gets more complicated. People of Hawaii identify themselves in two ways: local and ethnic, or belonging to a certain ethnicity. Every resident who embraces their ethnic heritage can express their Hawaiian “localness” by wearing an Aloha Shirt—the ultimate showcase of Hawaii’s unified diversity. (Note: Hawaiian ethnicity is different than being born in the State of Hawaii).  

75 years of Aloha wear

“Aloha wear”, a term trademarked in 1936 by clothier Ellery Chun, continues to paint Hawaii with tropical patterns as it rides the wave of island fashion. Brands like Tori Richard, Reyn Spooner, Hilo Hattie and Tommy Bahama produce Hawaiian print clothes at an enormous rate. What answer could they be looking for, and to what question? Each shirt, it seems, hopes to discover the next best way to say aloha. But how many ways are there? The reason for this relentless search could rest in the difference between Aloha Shirt and Hawaiian Shirt. Once you understand aloha, you realize there is no single pattern that represents Hawaii. No single story to tell about its people. No single image that captures a paradise of all cultures. Aloha means many things, but the Aloha shirt will always symbolize a nation of communities unified by the power of a single word. Discover Hawaii Tours is dedicated to sharing the spirit of Aloha with the world. They offer tour packages on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.

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