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Aloha Shirt History and Evolution


1950's Shaheen Aloha Shirt from the Nicoloff Collection




After I got really interested in Aloha shirts, I found two great books, The Art of the Aloha Shirt by DeSoto Brown and Linda Arthur and The Aloha Shirt, Spirit of the Islands by Dale Hope, both full of information and pictures. So the information that I site below is from these sources.

From:  "The Art of the Aloha Shirt"

What is an aloha shirt. The simplest thing to say is that we know one when we see one. In a way, the aloha shirt is a unifying symbol of the aloha spirit, a major theme in Hawaii representing goodwill within a diverse community and evolved over many years, influenced by a diverse elements.  No one person or company can be identified as the aloha shirt's inventor.

The roots of the aloha shirt can be traced to the kapa (or tapa, the Samoan equivalent) cloth found throughout  the Pacific, made from pounding and dyeing the bark of the wauke (mulberry) tree. Kapa cloth was the currency of the many South Pacific cultures until the switched to a currency-based economy in the early18th century. These patterns would later become popular in the 50's. The finest original kapa cloth designs were from the Hawaiian Island.

The aloha shirt patterns were greatly influenced by the Tahitian pareu, which was a simple piece of cloth of bold, simple designs of floral designs in white on a plain solid background.  It was worn by both sexes by the middle of the 1800's. These patterns have affected aloha shirt designs since the 1930's.

The Filipino men's shirt called the barong tagalong could have influenced the aloha shirt's untucked style.

In the 20's and 30's Japanese tailors were well known in Honolulu. Musa-shiya the Shirtmaker became famous for advertisements created by George Mellen.  These ads were directed towards the tourist so they could order on arrival, have it made quickly, and wear it for their entire stay.  The shirts made in both Western-style dress shirts and Japanese fabrics became a crucial element in the creation of the aloha shirt.  Silk and cotton would have been first used in the very early shirts, as rayon, the first synthetic fiber, was not suitable until the late1940's.

In '32 or '33 Ellery Chun was making retail shirts at King-Smith, his family store in downtown Honolulu, probably of Japanese fabrics. Hawaiian material for garments was marketed by 1937. Ellen Chun Lum, sister of Ellery Chun, was significant in creating Hawaiian fabric designs that were printed on silk and sold in the family store.

In 1935 Gump's store, located next to the newly-opened Royal Hawaiian Hotel, sold Hawaiian-type hand-blocked fabrics for curtains and upholstery.  With the popularity of these fabrics, low cost imitation quickly appeared. 

In 1936 Kamehameha and Branfleet (later to become Kahala Sport wear) opened factories to produce sportswear, with the majority of sales to tourists. Local sales were "sluggish". Only the upper class could afford clothing for leisure activities. Beginning in 1937 cotton fabric produced on the U.S. mainland was used in the making of shirts. In 1937 Ellery Chun trademarked the term, "aloha shirt. 

In 1937 Max Lewis started the Royal Hawaiian manufacturing Company to fulfill tourist demand.

After World War II, a gradual change in aloha wear took place with the breakdown of rigid dress requirements for business attire. The business tie and jacket certainly were not comfortable in Hawaii's summer climate. In 1946, the Honolulu Chamber of commerce appropriated $1000 to study aloha shirts and prepare suitable designs for clothing businessmen could wear.  A resolution allowing sports shirts was passed to allow employees to wear them from June through October. But the aloha shirt was specifically excluded because of loud patterns. The following year during the official Aloha Week celebration, an exception was made to allow the wearing of casual aloha attire - the more colorful the better - for the entire week. With this breakthrough, the trend would continue to expand.

This period up to the middle to late 50's was considered the Golden Age of aloha shirts.  Rayon with smooth finish and Hawaiian prints became the pinnacle of aloha shirts. Complicated eye popping patterns containing all aspects of Hawaiian culture and artifacts were included on the aloha shirts, often referred to as "chop suey" prints because of the mixture of content in the design. These were the shirts that collectors, in later years, would pay high prices to add to their collections. If you have an Alfred Shaheen shirt, you have a treasure from the period.  In the late 50's rayon became old hat and went out of style. At the same time the gaudy floral designs were no longer considered fashionable. 

The modern era of aloha shirts is considered, the 60's and beyond. In 1962 the Hawaiian Fashion guild staged "Operation Liberation", giving two aloha shirts to each man in the State House and Senate. The Senate passed a resolution urging the regular wearing of aloha attire from Lei Day, May 1st, and throughout the summer months.  Aloha Friday officially began in 1966, and by the end of the 60's, the wearing of aloha shirts for business dress any day of the week was accepted.  According to Alfred Shaheen, 

"It (Aloha dress) was really provincial in Hawaii then; the old timers were into formality.  The weren't far from missionaries; in fact, many were descendents of the missionaries so they were still pretty strict and puritanical about things. These were the top buys in business--houles--who ran things.  So it was a new breed, the younger guys who were ready for a new style."

With aloha dress accepted as everyday wear, Reyn Spooner shirts came on the scene in the early 60's.  Reyn McCullough moved from California to Hawaii in 1959, joining with Ruth Spooner carved out a niche in the local market, by making a shirt designed for locals to wear for casual and the office. These were more conservative designs, as opposed to the bold bright colors designed for the tourist trade. Also, in the 60's the reverse print aloha shirt was a major innovation.  So, the aloha shirts tended to be a bit more conservative...for a while.

The bold designs of the 50's would reappear new again in the 70's. As hippies sought second had cloths, as a statement against established expectations, the old shirt were purchased at the Salvation Army and Goodwill stores. They could be picked up for $.50.  The prices gradually crept upwards to $5. The old shirts became stylish again. Over the following decades the once fashionable "originals" went up greatly in price. Part of this high price trend was a result of the Japanese interest in collectible Americana, and often with a money-is-no-object attitude, beginning in the 80's. (Levi's and Nike shoes are another example). 

In the 80's there were 130 apparel manufacturers producing classic shirts from the 40's and 50's. And the old rediscovered patterns and styles are still being sold. Aloha shirts grew into international interest, as designers such as Yves St. Laurent, "discovered"  aloha prints. Rayon, out of style since 1960, returned. The polyester, easy care, shirts which ruled in the 70's, but lost favor in the 80's. People became tired of how stiff and hot it was in the warm Hawaiian climate.

As the 90's came around, a significant change came about.  The highest quality, name brand aloha shirts had become expensive enough that fewer and fewer tourists bought them.  But those wanting a true aloha shirt from and manufactured in the Hawaiian Islands continue to make it a profitable industry. Less expensive import imitations of Aloha shirts, from Korea, Indonesia, Shi Lanka, etc, have flooded the market at reduced prices. 

Check out these sites.

Designs from the Golden Age of Hawaiian Shirts By Gary L. Moss
We are what we wear by UH Manoa Professor Linda B. Arthur
The Aloha Shirt by Veronica S. Schweitzer
The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands Book at Amazon
The Art of the Aloha Shirt Book at Barns & Noble
Interview with Dale Brown, Author of The Aloha Shirt, Spirit of the Islands
World's largest Aloha Shirt at Hilo Hattie