Once mocked and widely seen as the staple of the daft uncle who gets too pissed at family dos, the Aloha shirt has made a big comeback. Whether some of that is ironic, novelty wear or not doesn’t really matter; fashion houses such as Tommy Hilfiger, Prada, and Saint Laurent have all pushed Aloha on the catwalk and, 100 years after it first appeared, it’s safe to say the Aloha print is a fashion staple for both men and women.
Because of the climate of Hawaii, traditional Hawaiian dress wasn’t made up of much: a malo (loincloth) for men and a pa’u (skirt) for women, all made from the bark of a mulberry plant (and some other stuff but this isn’t a textiles lesson). Once merchants started arriving to the island they brought with them all sorts of different fabrics which would eventually start to replace the taditional fabrics used by the natives.
As merchants arrived then so would the Christian missionaries; ever-fearful of flesh the missionaries would begin to encourage the people of Hawaii to cover up. Between the merchants and the godheads, traditional Hawaiian clothing had essentially been all but destroyed. As if they hadn’t had enough with these two groups, soon the whalers descended on the island around the same time as a load of Mexican cowboys brought to the island by the king in the 1830s (long story but they had a load of cattle that needed dealing with). Pretty soon they had all made sure that Hawaiian men were wearing trousers and shirts.
By the end of the 1800s a fresh wave of settlers from Japan would arrive on Big Island, many who were going to marry Hawaiians that they’d only seen on a picture (like some sort of primitive Tinder). More new arrivals meant more new fashions and the Japanese would bring one important ingredient with them: the kimono. It was the patterned kimonos that would apparently spark an idea into someone’s mind (we’re not entirely sure who invented it) and into the head of a man who was instrumental in popularising the Aloha shirt.
Ellery Chun would return from university to work at his family’s dry goods store in the 1930s and started to create Aloha shirts from kimono material. By 1935 he had trademarked the name Aloha shirt. It was perfect timing in the very darkest sense: as WWII came about and servicemen arrived in Hawaii they would also adopt the colourful shirts as part of their wardrobe, eventually taking them home for themselves and their friends and family. The start of what would become a global trend.
As the 1950s came around so did lots of commercial air travel and, as a result, tourism to Hawaii. At some point they were marketed as ‘wearable postcards’ as all of these tourists were returning home in brightly coloured, floral shirts. By 1961 Elvis was wearing one in Blue Hawaii, cementing their status as an international fashion statement but also reaching their height as they began to wane in popularity until something surprising brought them back along with another international trend.
In 1966 the Hawaiian Fashion Guild succeed in making ‘Aloha Fridays’ a thing in workplaces in busy Honolulu. The practice was adopted across Hawaii, even in the financial district and the more serious parts of business. This was the birth of what, by the 90s, was known as ‘Casual Fridays’ where staff are allowed to wear what they want for some sort of perceived morale boost (“look how nice our big business is - we let you wear your own clothes one day a week!”).
Now the Aloha patterns adorn shirts, sundresses, sarongs, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Those original Aloha shirts have now took on vintage legacy with collectors paying big money if they can get their hands on an authentic piece. Here’s a couple of things to look out for if you want to try and find your own original Aloha.
Fabric: The genuine Hawaiian shirts should be made of rayon. It should say somewhere but, after a while, you should just be able to figure out what’s rayon and what isn’t.
Label: The label in the neck line will usually be a loop or stitched all four sides: only modern shirts will really have a hanging label. Also check for that all important ‘Made in Hawaii” label.
Hem: Straight so that you can wear the shirt over your trousers
Collar: Loose, not those stiff cardboard ones; everything about the Aloha is free and easy
Buttons: This is a big one. The earliest versions of Aloha shirts will have buttons made out of wood, coconuts, or even seashells. Plastic was used later.
Pattern: Authentic vintage shirts will have the pocket pattern match up with that of the shirt. A slightly more expensive and time consuming process, something which mass production lines don’t like.
Brands: There are a few famous brands that serious collectors will look for: Shaheens, Kamehameha, Kahala
Ultimately though, if you don’t want to be a collector, just look for quality… and some coconut buttons would be a bonus.