The Vintage Aloha Shirt

Vintage Aloha Shirt, Circa 1960

The aloha shirt, also referred to as the Hawaiian shirt, is a style of dress shirt originating from Hawaii. They are usually short-sleeved and made from printed fabric. Often worn untucked, and worn casually or as informal business attire in Hawaii.

"Aloha Friday", a now-common tradition of celebrating the end of the workweek by wearing more casual attire on Fridays, initially grew out of an effort to enhance the island spirit.

The basic design of the Aloha shirts is: printed, mostly short-sleeved, and collared. They usually have a left chest pocket sewn in, often with attention to ensure the printed pattern remains continuous. Aloha shirts may be worn by men or women. Women's aloha shirts usually have a lower-cut, v-neck style.

The lower hems are straight, and the shirts are often worn with the shirt-tails hanging out, rather than tucked in. Wearing an untucked shirt was possibly influenced by the local Filipinos who wore shirt-tail out, and called these bayau meaning "friend". Wearing it untucked or tucked depends on personal taste; it carries the same connotations of tucking or untucking a polo shirt. In the 1950s, the shirt became allowed as business attire for aloha week, but only if worn tucked in.

Traditional men's aloha shirts are usually adorned with traditional Hawaiian quilt designs, tapa designs, and simple floral patterns in more muted colors. Contemporary aloha shirts may have prints that do not feature any traditional Hawaiian designs but instead may incorporate drinks, palm trees, surf boards or other island tropical elements in a similar form as the traditional aloha shirt.

It has been observed that locals (kamaʻāina) tended to shy away from the garishness of aloha shirts as "too wild" when they first appeared, whereas tourists embraced wearing designs of many bright colors. An example of the type of shirt the locals may prefer includes the "reverse print"; these shirts are often printed on the interior, resulting in the muted color on the exterior.

Reverse print Hawaiian shirt.


The origin of aloha shirts can be traced to the 1920s or the early 1930s, when the Honolulu-based dry goods store "Musa-Shiya the Shirtmaker" under the proprietorship of Kōichirō Miyamoto, started making shirts out of colorful Japanese prints. It has also been contended that the aloha shirt was devised in the early 1930s by Chinese merchant Ellery Chun of "King-Smith Clothiers and Dry Goods", a store in Waikiki. Although this claim has been described as a myth reinforced by repeated telling, Chun may have been the first to mass-produce or to maintain the ready-to-wear in stock to be sold off the shelf.

The name "aloha shirt" appeared later. By 1935 and 1936, the word aloha was being attached to various sorts of Hawaiian products, so calling the garments "aloha shirts" was hardly original. The term aloha shirt first appeared in print in an advertisement for Musa-Shiya in the June 28, 1935 issue of The Honolulu Advertiser newspaper. However, Ellery Chun is sometimes credited for coining the term, perhaps in 1933; Chun's store reportedly carried window signs that said "aloha shirts". The term "aloha sportswear" was registered as a trademark by Chun's company in 1936, followed by Chun trademarking "Aloha Shirt" in 1937 and owning the rights to this appellation for the next 20 years.

By the end of the 1930s, 450 people were employed in an industry worth $600,000 annually. Two notable manufacturers of this period are Kamehameha and Branfleet (later Kahala), both founded in 1936. Retail chains in Hawaii, including some based on the mainland, may mass-produce a single aloha shirt design for employee uniforms.

The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands.

After World War II, many servicemen and servicewomen returned to the United States from Asia and the Pacific islands with aloha shirts made in Hawaii since the 1930s. Following Hawaii's statehood in 1959, when extant tropical prints came to be regarded as rather tacky, designer Alfred Shaheen became noted for producing aloha shirts of higher chic and quality, and Elvis Presley wore a Shaheen-designed red aloha on the album cover for Blue Hawaii (1961). 

Aloha Week
In 1946, the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce funded a study of aloha shirts and designs for comfortable business clothing worn during the hot Hawaiian summers. The City and County of Honolulu passed a resolution allowing their employees to wear sport shirts from June–October. City employees were not allowed to wear aloha shirts for business until the creation of the Aloha Week festival in 1947. The Aloha Week festival was motivated by both cultural and economic concerns: First held at Ala Moana Park in October, the festival revived interest in ancient Hawaiian music, dancing, sports, and traditions. There was a holoku ball, a floral parade, and a makahiki festival attended by 8,000 people. Economically, the week-long event first attracted visitors during October – traditionally a slow month for tourism – which benefited the Hawaiian fashion industry as they supplied the muʻumuʻu and aloha shirts worn for the celebration. Aloha Week expanded in 1974 to six islands, and was lengthened to a month. In 1991, Aloha Week was renamed to Aloha Festivals.

In the end, Aloha Week had a direct influence on the resulting demand for alohawear, and was responsible for supporting local clothing manufacturing: locals needed the clothing for the festivals, and soon people in Hawaii began wearing the clothing in greater numbers on more of a daily basis. Hawaii's fashion industry was relieved, as they were initially worried that popular clothing from the mainland United States would eventually replace aloha attire.

Aloha Friday officially began in 1966, and young adults of the 1960s embraced the style, replacing the formal business wear favored by previous generations. By 1970, aloha wear had gained acceptance in Hawaii as business attire for any day of the week. 

Hawaii's custom of Aloha Friday slowly spread east to California, continuing around the globe until the 1990s, when it became known as Casual Friday. Today in Hawaii, alohawear is worn as business attire for any day of the week, and "Aloha Friday" is generally used to refer to the last day of the work week. Now considered Hawaii's term for "Thank God It's Friday", the phrase was used by Kimo Kahoano and Paul Natto in their 1982 song, "It's Aloha Friday, No Work 'til Monday", heard every Friday on Hawaii radio stations across the state.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, musician Jimmy Buffett and actor Tom Selleck (in his stint as Thomas Magnum on Magnum P.I.) helped further popularize the aloha shirt, which lead to its bastardization in the ‘90s as companies like Tommy Bahama attempted to monetize Hawaii’s reputation as a paradise. In 1993, Generra clothing executive Bob Emfield and his associate Tony Margolis, crafted an island-loving character who lived by the motto “life is one long weekend,” shaping their Tommy Bahama brand around him to sell island resort wear all-year round, even adopting vanity sizing to make “customers relax and feel good about themselves.”

Unfortunately, even Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo and his Montague clique couldn’t undo the damage done by Tommy Bahama and their ilk at the time. Still, today Romeo + Juliet is considered by many as the epicenter of the aloha shirt’s fashion revival. For the film, production designer Catherine Martin and costume designer Kym Barrett drew inspiration from ‘60s and ‘70s Saint Laurent for the elder Montagues and Capulets, dressed John Leguizamo’s Tybalt and crew in D&G, Dolce & Gabbana’s now defunct diffusion line, and sourced Romeo’s navy blue wedding suit from Prada’s then merely years old menswear line. So, it is wholly unsurprising that, as the fashion industry looked towards the ‘80s and ‘90s for inspiration over the past decade, the film and the designers featured within played a major role in recontextualizing the aloha shirt. 

Aloha attire
The related concept of "aloha attire" stems from the aloha shirt. Semi-formal functions such as weddings, birthday parties, and dinners are often designated as "aloha attire", meaning that men wear aloha shirts and women wear muumuu or other tropical prints. Because Hawaii tends to be more casual, it is rarely appropriate to attend such functions in full evening wear like on the mainland; instead, aloha attire is seen as a happy medium between excessive formality and casual wear.