The History of the Hawaiian Shirt

     In the history of the Hawaiian shirt, the brightly-colored shirt stood for a carefree, relaxed and fun way of life. Vibrant and bold the Hawaiian shirt, known interchangeably as the aloha shirt, has outlived fads and trends. With smart marketing from designers like Tommy Bahama, it has grown from a niche business to a worldwide phenomenon.


There is no one clear story of origin but tales abound of Hawaiian teens buying finely printed crepe from Japan from the dry goods stores in downtown Honolulu. They then had their mothers sew loose fitting comfortable shirts from the fabric. This took place in the late 1920s and early 1930s when tourists were arriving by boatloads to Honolulu.


Tourists, dressed in stiff white collared white shirts, took to the Hawaiian shirts for nothing was more iconic of the Hawaiian way of life than these bold shirts with bright and vibrant island themes. The surfing culture was just as important in the history of the Hawaiian shirt as their adoption validated the shirt’s symbolism of the Polynesian lifestyle.


As the first shirts were made from Japanese fabrics, early prints depicted Oriental themes such as pine and plum trees which stood for success, good fortune and long life. Bamboo prints represented flexibility, longevity and good health and tiger prints conveyed courage and strength.


It was not too long in the history of the Hawaiian shirt that local artists started to design textiles that captured the romantic island lifestyle. Early designers came up with botanical prints of native flowers such as hibiscus and jasmine. Others designed hula girls, flying fish, coconut trees, surfers, outrigger canoes and native birds and fish.


The period between the 1930s to the 1950s was deemed the golden age of the aloha shirt. Vintage shirts produced during that era nowadays command hundreds to thousands of dollars.


Early designs which are now sought after by collectors include: -

  • Geometric designs inspired by the Polynesian tapa cloth which is handmade from the bark of the wauke tree
  • Deco style surfing scenes
  • The Aloha Queen which is an unusual print showing the queen in a holuku, a formal gown with a long flowing train, holding a torch ginger cutting.


The aloha shirt became a wearable postcard and put Hawaii on the map, as the first thing that tourists did when getting off the boat, was to make a beeline for the small shop tailors who were selling them.


In the history of the Hawaiian shirt, opinions are split as to who was the true originator of the fashion. Some point to Ellery Chun, who sold the shirts through his family business King-Smith Clothiers, as the first to receive the trademark “Aloha Shirts”. Chun cut his shirts from Japanese yukata fabric. He tailored shirts with square bottoms and short sleeves and sold them at his store which had a window sign advertising “Aloha Shirts”. His original shirts are on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Textile Collection.


 Others note an ad in the Honolulu Advertiser on June 28 1935 by Musa-Shiya the Shirtmaker as pointing to him as the first person who made the custom-made aloha shirts. The tailor was Koichira Miyamoto who sold his shirts for US$0.95


The aloha shirt was worn by the celebrities of the time such as Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley who were often photographed in these shirts. Time Magazine had President Truman in an aloha shirt on one of its covers. He often wore them while in office and during retirement.


Hawaii’s surfing icon, Duke Kahamamoku, wore the shirt on his extensive travels and was the earliest and staunchest fan of the aloha shirt. He came out with his own line of shirts which are much sought after by collectors today.


Although popular today, the shirts which had vertical designs running down the length of the cut or border shirts were less common in the history of the Hawaiian shirt. The designs typically involved more fabric. Popular border designs include tropical fish, hula girls, maps or a feather kahili, a standard used by Hawaiian royalty


Collectors are on the hunt for early aloha shirts from manufacturers such as Kamehameha, Kahala, Watumalls, Malihini, Kuu-Ipo, Poi Pounder Togs and Surfriders.  A particularly rare piece could command in excess of $5,000 for a shirt.


The popularity of the aloha shirt faded in the 1960s when tourists felt that it had become tacky and poorly made. Interest renewed when Reyn Spooner came out with shirts that had the faded sun-bleached look of attire worn by the local surfing community. He did that by making his shirts out of reverse fabric.


You are always in fashion wearing an aloha shirt. Just bear in mind that in the history of the Hawaiian shirt, it is always worn out, never tucked in.