Aloha! The History of the Hawaiian Shirt

Words by: Keanu Adorable

Most of us know them as Hawaiian shirts, but in Hawaii, they go by a different name: aloha shirts. The Aloha Shirt has a long and storied history. Embraced during the Post-WWII era, when the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce pushed for more comfortable business attire for the islands’ expanding professional workforce. And they have come a long way since the days when a relative, errr or yourself, tried to look like they’re straight off Magnum, P.I.

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. 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 fibres, the material was coloured with red and yellow vegetable dyes, which tended to fade fast.

FABRIC STORY

Storytelling is common and is often shown on various shirt print. These depictions represent Hawaiian traditions of beating kapa, among others.

A hit with beach-goers, the shirt also presented off-duty naval servicemen with a striking alternative to their dull uniforms. Upon returning home, recruits would bring along their new souvenirs. Coupled with the dawn of commercial airline flights to Hawaii, this drove the sales of the product through the roof. 

Hollywood star power added yet another boost to the popularity of the shirt. Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra famously donned Alohas in 1953’s From Here to Eternity. And Elvis Presley stunned fans in a bright red one on the cover of the Blue Hawaii soundtrack in 1961. More recently, a Hawaiian shirt carried an element of violence seen in 1983’s Scarface and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet in 1996. It might be a little generous to claim that Leo made it okay to wear a Hawaiian shirt again, but it is fair to say that he was ahead of the curve. Before menswear blogs understood that floral print shirts were actually fly, Leo/Romeo was stunting in the streets of Verona Beach.

ELVIS BLUE HAWAII

Elvis Presley, Blue Hawaii (1961)

Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift, From Here to Eternity (1953)

Leonardo DiCaprio, Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Today, they’re not just worn by businessmen in Hawaii: Hawaiian-inspired patterns are showing up in department stores such as Selfridges and Harvey Nichols and desirable brands such as Prada, Saint Laurent, and Valentino have featured pieces recently. Hedi Slimane designed a $840 shirt for Saint Laurent and Prada is also selling long sleeve Hawaiian print shirts. Forbes has named the resurgence the “Hawaiian print redux,” and GQ recently featured Pharrell Williams sporting a Prada aloha shirt in a story that wondered whether “Oahu is the new fashion capital of the world.”

Check out our gallery of our favourite Hawaiian shirts that are available right now.

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