Perhaps no other item of men’s clothing is so intimately associated with a place than the Hawaiian shirt. Where it hails from nobody is sure: does it stem from the tails-out shirt of the Philippines, kimonos of Japan or Tahitian flower patterns? What we do know is that Captain Cook introduced western shirts to Hawaii 225 years ago, missionaries taught the Hawaiians to sew and that Chinese and Japanese immigrants introduced silks and printed fabrics.
There are two ways of thinking about Hawaiian shirts,” says Dale Hope, owner of the legendary Kahala Hawaiian shirt label. “One is as horrible, gaudy and worn with plaid paints and black socks. The other is 40s style, worn with linen and a great hat. Worn well, aloha shirts are just charming. For visitors they’re postcards you can wear, and if you’re Hawaiian, they’re a point of pride.”
The Hawaiian shirt’s golden era saw its manufacture pioneer textile printing and casualwear and become essential kit for US sailors posted to the area, tourists after a souvenir, Hollywood stars – from Douglas Fairbanks and Alan Ladd to Bing Crosby and Elvis – and even presidents after a laid-back look (Eisenhower and Truman were big fans). Such was the shirt’s popularity in its native island that by 1948 an Aloha Wednesday – a forerunner of Dress-Down Friday – was introduced. Wednesdays were happy but hard on the eyes. Duke Kahanamoku – the founding father of surfing and Hawaii’s most famous son – was brought on to promote the Hawaiian shirt and, incredibly for what 50 years ago was almost a third world region, by 1958 its manufacture was the islands’ third biggest industry.
That may have been 60 years ago. But even now – while the shirt remains a go-to for any warm climate – a collector’s market sees them change hands for thousands. And although this national shirt may be eye-watering by today’s more minimal standards and most likely found at suburban backyard barbies, it still carries the same breezy beach boy confidence and captures the relaxed living of tropical climes.
“The aloha shirt is a pleasant, upbeat icon that has moved across the globe and from one generation to the next,” explains Hope. “Every generation has its own way of dressing. But it’s really hard to argue with a good aloha shirt. Someone once said that if everyone wore an aloha shirt there would be no wars.”