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The State of Aloha

Go to any place where there are a lot of working people and you’ll see them. Take the open space at the intersection of Bishop Street and South King Street in Honolulu at lunchtime. You will most certainly find varied examples of them as you scan the bank executives, lawyers, real estate agents and office workers smoking cigarettes, sipping coffee, or just sitting on benches texting each other. If you’re on Maui, look no further than Market Street in Wailuku. You’re sure to spot one.

But it’s not just for people at work either. They’re seen at luaus, parties and church services. Even tourists have them — but those tend to look different than the ones you’d find at a bank or office.

Aloha shirts are strange things when you really start to think about them. They are mired in myth and controversy. Let’s start with the name. What do you call these shirts? Most folks in the islands refer to them as aloha shirts.

Personally, I knew of no other name for them until I wore one on the Mainland. That was when I discovered the other name — Hawaiian shirts.

Then there’s its disputed origin. When did all of this begin? Like many things in Hawaii, the shirts come from a bevy of different sources. The first shirts on the islands were worn by Capt. Cook’s crew. They were long-sleeved frocks with loose collars.

They were bartered with Native Hawaiians and it soon became a status symbol in the islands to have Western-made clothes. Of course, over the centuries the shirt evolved to a short-sleeved, square-cut shirt.

In Honolulu, the precursor to the aloha shirt began sometime in the 1920s. It’s believed that local boys wanted matching shirts to wear at school for fun. Chinese tailors started to cut shirts out of brightly colored Japanese crepe, a material used to make kimonos for little girls. The materials also had images of flowers and leaves.

The shirts are also believed to have been influenced by Filipino immigrants who brought the barong tagalog shirt that was worn outside the pants and was not tucked in — a revolutionary idea at the time.

While the first maker of the shirt is probably lost to history, one of the first mass producers was Ellery Chun. After earning a degree in economics from Yale University in 1931, Chun returned to his native city of Honolulu to run a dry goods shop on North King Street in Chinatown.

There, he started producing the brightly colored and patterned shirts. He started calling them aloha shirts. In 1933, the first shirts had images of pineapples, palm trees and hula dancers.

Surfers and the famous beach boys of Waikiki started wearing them. Tourists soon caught on and began to buy them. But Chun wasn’t the only pioneer in aloha shirts. Koichi Miyamoto, also known as Musa-Shiya the shirt maker, posted advertisements as early as 1935 for “aloha shirts made to order or ready made.”

By the time Hawaii entered the Union in 1959, aloha attire was everywhere. Men from Elvis Presley to Harry Truman were photographed on magazine covers with aloha shirts. Hawaii-based garment manufacturers like Chun were making floral print muumuus and dresses to match the aloha shirt.

Hawaii’s clothing for the rest of the country was known for bright, floral, colorful casual wear. Then things took a turn in 1960s.

In 1962, just three years after statehood, the Legislature was bombarded. A manufacturing association known as the Hawaiian Fashion Guild launched “Operation Liberation.” Legislators, most of whom were men, received two aloha shirts.

The guild wanted it known that aloha shirts weren’t just for weekends. The aloha shirt could be worn to work. The operation worked. The Legislature passed a resolution announcing that during the “summer months” (after Lei Day), aloha shirts should be worn “for the sake of comfort and in support of the 50th state’s garment industry.”

The aloha shirt and the floral patterns weren’t just for luaus. They were coming into the workplace.

In 1965, the Hawaiian Fashion Guild started another campaign. This time, it promoted a day in the workweek in which people could wear something more causal. “Aloha Friday” was born.

Of course, the garish designs and colors of the luau-going tourist crowd would not do at the office on Aloha Fridays. Garment makers accordingly fashioned a more subdued kind of print for workers. That’s the kind you’ll see on Market Street or in downtown Honolulu.

These days, you can find aloha shirts everywhere on every kind of person and every kind of event. It’s truly Hawaii’s fashion contribution to the world.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”