Hawaii shirt or Aloha shirt is maybe one of the most polarizing staples in every vintage aficionado’s wardrobe. In this article we’re going to dive into this garment’s history. And how this brightly colored shirt with its wild patterns went from tacky on to becoming a workwear staple in the Hawaiian Senate and an all-around staple in every man’s closet.
Although it’s a bit hard to define the exact date when the Hawaii shirt was invented, we did manage to dig out some stories about Japanese workers importing kimono fabrics to Hawaii in the early 20th century. Kimono fabric was perfect for the hot and humid climate of the Hawaii. This may also shed some light on the origins of the artistic Japanese prints on the Hawaii shirts.
Then in the early 1930’s a champ called Ellery Chun, a young fellow from Honolulu created the Aloha Shirt design. Ellery was inspired by the ‘palaka’ garments of the plantation workers and his classmates’ silk shirts sewn from leftover kimono fabrics by the Japanese housekeepers. Eventually he made his own version of the now iconic shirt.
After majoring at Yale in economics in 1931, Ellery returned home and started to manufacture ready-to-wear patterns from cloth imported from the mainland, Japan, China and Tahiti. Young mister Chun started selling the shirts at their family store. The early adaptors of these bold and breezy styles were the surfers and beachboys and of course the rich tourists and Hollywood celebrities. Ellery printed his Hawaii shirts with colorful patterns including such classics as palm trees, hula girls and pineapples.
The popularity of the Aloha shirts went through the roof during the 40’s and 50’s. One thing that contributed a lot on the Aloha shirts success were the US Servicemen and Women stationed in Hawaii who began bringing the shirts back to the mainland as badges of honor. Military personnel and the booming tourist industry created together the golden age of Aloha Shirts, where everyone from Elvis to presidents were rocking the Hawaii shirts.
Left: Elvis Presley plays a ukelele, wearing a Hawaiian shirt in Blue Hawaii, 1961. Right: US president Harry S. Truman rocking the Hawaii shirt on the cover of Life magazine in 1951.
In the 1960’s the Hawaii shirts remained in style and even become official governments attire in Hawaii. It began with initiatives as ‘Operation Liberation’ and ‘Aloha Friday’ which tried to get Hawaii shirts accepted as a formal workwear. Finally, a bill was passed allowing Aloha Shirts to be worn at the workplace throughout the summer. And as you may have guessed, the ‘Aloha Fridays’ goal was to allow all male employees to wear them once a week. This custom would then later go ashore into the mainland and become known as casual Friday’s.
Hawaii shirts have stood the test of time for sure. From cult films like ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ and ‘Scarface’ all the way to the ‘Magnum P.I.’, you can spot this single piece of clothing that do not lack any screen time. In other words, Hawaii shirt is here to stay, so if you don’t already own one or even if you do, head down to the BSM store and get yourself a piece of history, a Hawaii button up. These bad boys are never going out of style!