Episode 5: Figuring Out Fashion: Aloha Shirts
Updated: Apr 28, 2022
Hawaiian Shirts AKA The Aloha Shirt
When I was in elementary and middle school, I loved Jimmy Buffett. Apparently, as a fourth grader, I needed to relax with the island-infused sounds of that white guy from Mississippi. I really embraced the idea that I had a tropical soul and I memorized hours of Jimmy Buffett’s catalog. I didn’t understand what a margarita really was, but I was wasting away in Margaritaville, or whatever. In Connecticut. I was a twelve-year old New Englander who really understood what Jimmy was getting at: being on the beach and drinking is cool. Like many kids, I knew that in order to really display my tropical inclinations, I needed a wardrobe to match. I asked my mom to buy me a Hawaiian shirt, and another one. And a few more.
-Pretty soon, I was a middle-schooler who resembled a Midwesterner on his yearly vacation to St. Augustine. Additionally, as a chubby kid, I thought the big flowing floral prints suited my physique. In The Simpsons episode, “Homer’s Phobia,” Upon seeing Bart with a Hawaiian t-shirt, Homer tells Marge that there are only two kinds of people who wear those shirts: gay guys and big fat party animals, and Bart doesn't look like a big fat party animal.
-I wanted to embody the Big Fat Party Animal aesthetic as a child who had never actually been to a party. I did drink a ton of soda though. It wasn’t until I discovered Irish Drinking Songs (see episode 2) that I ditched the Hawaiian shirts and moved to kilts and shirts with Guinness logos. Now, however, Aloha shirts are back in a serious way. They’re normal in high-fashion and business. You can wear an Aloha shirt to any function and people will assume you’re dope, not just a big fat party animal.
From here on out, I’m going to call them Aloha Shirts since although they come from Hawaii, they aren’t Hawaiian in the sense of Native Hawaiian, at least, they weren’t originally. The Aloha Shirt is the very specific item that we all call “The Hawaiian Shirt.” Ya know?
Question: growing up, who did you associate with Hawaiian shirts AKA Aloha shirts?
Part One: The idea of Hawaii as a status symbol
This is an incredibly simplified synopsis of European/American contact with Hawaii before 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th state, but here it is for context.
-The islands were first settled by Polynesians sometime between 124 and 1120 AD. Hawaiian civilization was isolated from the rest of the world for at least 500 years.
-An expedition led by British explorer James Cook is usually considered to be the first group of Europeans to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands, which they did in 1778. European military technology helped King Kamehameha I unite the islands, and the Hawaiian Islands served as an agricultural and strategic location for a century.
-The Kingdom relied on a plantation economy with labor from Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino immigrants. It was a constitutional monarchy with equal voting rights regardless of race, gender, or wealth.
-HOWEVER, American immigration (specifically business owners) to the island curtailed the power of the King and disenfranchised Native Hawaiians and Asian laborers by implementing excessive income and property requirements. Essentially, a coalition of mostly non-Hawaiians, driven by sugar interests, established themselves in the Hawaiian government and rewrote the constitution to strip power from King "David" Kalākaua.
-WHAT A SHOCKER–you’re telling me that American business interests usurped sovereign land and hijacked their democracy and economy for profit?
-Queen Liliʻuokalani attempted to restore power to the throne, but American businessmen placed her under house arrest in 1893. It’s hard to imagine that America would destroy the sovereignty of a people in favor of business interests, isn’t it? Like when has that ever happened besides so many other times?
-1898, the Spanish-American War broke out, and the strategic use of the naval base at Pearl Harbor during the war convinced Congress to approve formal annexation. Two years later, Hawaii was organized into a formal U.S. territory and in 1959 entered the United States as the 50th state.
-It is with this backdrop of aggressive colonial plantation interests that we get the popularization of all things “Hawaiian” in the mainland American consciousness.
I’m about to use a lot of quotes From an article in Smithsonian Magazine called “History of the Hawaiian shirt”:
“At the height of World War I, with America about to enter the conflict, Hawaiian music was all the rage. In 1916, Hawaiian records outsold all other genres, while ukuleles were ubiquitous in college dorms and upper-crust nightclubs”
“Though its precise origins are lost to history, the aloha shirt first appeared in Hawaii in the 1920s or ’30s, probably when local Japanese women adapted kimono fabric for use in men’s shirting. The shirts achieved some popularity among tourists to Hawaii and found greater commercial success when they hit the mainland in the mid-1930s.”
There are a couple of claims to the Aloha Shirt throne that I found. According to some sources, 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.[b] 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.
“One reason men adopted a garment otherwise suited to their sisters’ closet was that rich, famous men wore it. Visitors to Hawaii in the 1930s were invariably wealthy, and before long, aloha shirts were being sold by celebrities whom everyday Americans sought to emulate. American heroes from three-time Olympic swimming champion and surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku to singer Bing Crosby were lending their names to particular brands. Those endorsements, says Dale Hope, a historian and the author of The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands, had “a huge effect on people purchasing those shirts.” If you could wear what the man unscathed by the Depression was wearing, it didn’t matter that it was feminine: You looked like someone who didn’t need to worry about his masculine bona fides.”
“By the 1960s, the shirt had become truly ubiquitous. Aloha Fridays were a fixture of a certain kind of workplace, and everyone—from Elvis to the decidedly unhip Richard Nixon—seemed to have an aloha shirt. Over time, perhaps inevitably, it lapsed into the realm of corny suburban-dad-wear.”
Part Two: OBVIOUSLY WE’RE GONNA TALK ABOUT COLONIZATION:
-Clearly, the Aloha Shirt represents the adoption of Hawaii as an idea into the American mainstream, and with that adoption, a pretty bleak colonial history is obscured. Aloha shirts were not invented by Native Hawaiians, but rather Asian immigrants to Hawaii. I don’t know WHO needs to hear this, but Native Hawaiian clothing is not the Hawaiian shirt. You can see examples of Native Hawaiian clothing online, but it ranges from minimal loincloth for men and skirts for women to a type of many-bird feathered cape worn by Chiefs or Chiefesses (or Ali’i in Hawaiian language).
“it is important to note that Indigenous Hawaiian designers have made the shirt their own, in ways that move forward from these historical controversial connotations.”
-Okay, so this is going to be annoying for some people. I get it. Another “why you should feel guilty for _____” discussion. But I NEED to talk about it because a discussion of Hawaiian shirts would be incomplete without it. I don’t think I need to engage in the “you should feel guilty for this choice” argument, but without this context, you don’t get anywhere.
A Guardian Article called “Hawaiian shirts are returning – but ‘people want to think twice’, says expert” examines the idea of the Hawaiian Shirt comeback through the lens of colonization. Zara Anishanslin, a fellow at the Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton says, ““They are the fashion equivalent of a plantation wedding,” said Anishanslin. “They could be seen as fashionable embodiments of the history of American colonization, imperialism and racism against Hawaii’s indigenous inhabitants. People might want to think twice about whether the look is worth the weight of its associative past.”
APPARENTLY, the Aloha Shirt aesthetic has been coopted by the far-right. They love to do this. “About five years ago, Hawaiian shirts became part of the “dadcore” trend. Then the “Boogaloo” movement chose to combine them with camouflage trousers, body armour and weapons.”
-If you don’t know the Boogaloo Movement, they are the far-right quasi-white supremacist group (at least in certain factions) that wants to foment civil war and then...I guess…do freedom. So, they’re pretty cool dudes.
-There are a bunch of news articles about how the Boogaloo Movement has adopted the Hawaiian shirt. One from the Associated Press is questionably titled “Aloha shirts on ‘boogaloos’ link symbol of peace to violence.” I find the title interesting because, knowing what we know ABOUT the Aloha Shirt…is it a “symbol of peace”? It’s so much more complicated than that.
In this article, Kealoha Pisciotta, a Native Hawaiian activist is interviewed, and marks the distinction between the aloha shirt and the “aloha spirit”:
“The aloha shirt is one thing but aloha itself is another, and the principles of aloha are deeply rooted in our culture…The principles of aloha are based on love, peace, harmony, truth.”
Part 3: What have Hawaiian shirts become??
We are living in a time of Hawaiian shirt oversaturation! As a former and current lover of the style, it seems like everybody is out here with a dope, well-fitting Aloha Shirt. I’ve done some basic-ass research on this, because I’m honestly exhausted by the idea of figuring out the exact root of a global fashion trend. Most of the stuff that I found was company blurbs on business forward websites like Business Insider and Fox News.
I want you to just listen to the garbage business speak from this Business Insider piece called, “Your dad's old favorite shirt is making a massive comeback”:
"We wanted to do our version of the classic tourist look but tweak it to make the Hawaiian shirt more interesting," Jockum Hallin, co-founder and CEO of Swedish label Our Legacy, told the New York Times. "We implemented patterns that are more urban-influenced. Our flowers and palm trees are done in a rough graffiti style, and our tropical 'greeting shirt' has more the look of a dark farewell than a warm welcome."
-more…the look…of a dark farewell…than a warm welcome…WHO WANTS THEIR HAWAIIAN SHIRT TO LOOK LIKE THAT? We are trying to pound some rum punch on the beach, not disappear into the tundra with a peacoat over our moody Aloha shirt.
A Fox News article (YEP!) makes a claim that “The trend was apparently inspired by a shirt recently worn by David Beckham in Miami. The Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello shirt reportedly inspired more people to attempt to pull off the colorful, yet casual look that Beckham went with.”
-Based on a brief and horrifying google search, the shirt costs somewhere between $500 and $1,000, sooooo that’s pretty cool.
Part 4: WHAT I FIND INTERESTING:
How culture transforms things, and as those things shift, so do the connotations of who/what is associated with those things.
It’s also interesting how globalization, specifically global capitalism, isolates items of consumer value within cultures while eliminating aspects of the culture that challenge the system.