A deep dive into the history of the Hawaiian Aloha Shirt, a vintage staple in the wardrobes of today's fashionistas. We look at the garment's journey from kitschy tourist souvenier, to a workwear staple in the Hawaiian Senate.
The Aloha Shirt was created by a Chinese immigrant named Ellery Chun, in the early 1930s. Ellery sold his vibrant shirts to droves of surfers, tourists and locals. Chun came up with the idea of ready to wear Aloha shirts after seeing local boys wearing shirts made from Japanese challis and local Filipino boys who wore brilliantly coloured shirt-tail-out shirts known as bayau shirts. Hawaii's cruise ship tourists became enamoured with the colourful garb, and soon designer labels were springing up across the island. This was the start of the 'Aloha Boom'.
A tag from one of Ellery's original Aloha Shirts
As popularity boomed, the Aloha Industry moved to factory production of ready to wear shirts, rather than the tailor made shirts of the past. By the end of the 1930's 450 people were employed in Aloha production, which was generating $600,000 annually. This popularity would only continue to grow, with US Servicemen and Women stationed in Hawaii bringing the shirts back to the Mainland US as badges of honour. This, combined with Hawaii's booming tourist industry lead to a golden age of Aloha Shirts during the 40s and 50s, with everyone from Elvis to US presidents donning the vibrant island patterns.
Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift in 'From Here to Eternity' in 1953
In the 1960's the Hawaiian Fashion Guild began a movement called 'Operation Liberation'. Hawaiian office workers were forced to wear suits in non air conditioned buildings, so the Guild began to push for Aloha Shirts to be considered appropriate workwear. They went so far as to gift Aloha Shirts to every member of the Hawaiian House of Representatives and the Senate, leading to a bill allowing Aloha Shirts to be worn throughout the summer. This was followed by 'Aloha Fridays' which allowed all male employees to wear them one day out of the week. This would eventually trickle down into the mainland US, becoming today what is known as casual Friday's in many offices.
Photo of the Hawaiian House of Reps in 2012 still honouring the 'Operation Liberation' tradition.
The Aloha Boom could not last forever, and by the 1980s the industry in Hawaii was dying a slow death. Large multinational companies like Walmart began producing cheap knock offs, using cheaper production methods and fabrics. Soon popular designs were being blatantly stolen, and the reduction in quality from cheap International production began to sully the reputation of the once great shirt.
Tom Sellek in Magnum PI, 1983, donning his famous Aloha Shirt, now preserved in the Smithsonian Museum.
In recent years, Aloha shirts have seen a revival in popularity. This could be linked to the cult status held by films like Scarface and Romeo & Juliet helping to catapult them back into the fashion Zeitgeist. We've seen Fashion Houses like Balenciaga and Gucci producing their own variations and presenting them on runways around the world. While very far gone from the days of tiny surf shops in Waikiki, Aloha Shirts still embody the culture and allure of Island life, and will no doubt remain a timeless, and staple garment.
Leonardo Dicaprio in Romeo & Juliet in the 1990's.
Why not check out our selection of Aloha Shirts? Our selection is constantly being updated with new colourways, sizes and patterns.