Some people find them gaudy, others consider them tacky, but few things represent Hawaiian culture better than the Hawaiian Aloha shirt. Its history comes from a variety of cultural sources, whose multiplicities are appropriately represented by the patchwork nature of the colorful shirts themselves.

For fans and budding collectors, one of the first questions is what to call them—are they Hawaiian shirts or Aloha shirts? The answer, it turns out, depends on where you live. When Honolulu's Ellery Chun invented the shirts in 1931, they were known as Aloha shirts, and they continue to be called Aloha shirts on the islands today. However, as soon as the shirts cross the Pacific Ocean to the U.S. mainland, their name changes to Hawaiian shirts.

The multiple inspirations for Hawaiian Aloha shirts arrived with the waves of immigrants who came to Hawaii in the early 20th century. In addition to bringing their cultures to Hawaii, these new citizens also brought their clothing. Japanese immigrants carried bright fabrics used for Kimonos to the Hawaiian Islands, while Filipino men wore Barong shirts. Mainland Americans sailed west in collared shirts, Chinese settlers favored silk.

Inspiration could also be found on the islands. In the 1920s and ’30s, Hawaiian plantation workers were already wearing brightly colored Palaka shirts. Japanese men living in Hawaii made beautifully printed shirts for themselves from Kabe crepe material imported from Japan. All of these combined influences helped Chun create his fabled Aloha shirt.

After graduating from Yale University in 1931, Chun returned to Honolulu to work at his family's dry-goods store. He renamed the business King-Smith Clothiers and started using leftover Kimono fabric to create bright shirts. In 1936 he registered the name “Aloha Shirt” and advertised them as such.

Around the same time, Musashiya and Surfriders Sportswear began producing “Hawaiian shirts.” The brand names may have been different but Chun and Musashiya both worked in prints that featured classic Hawaiian themes like palm trees and hula girls.

World War II put the nascent Hawaiian Aloha shirt industry on hold, but after the war, Alfred Shaheen took what Chun and Musashiya had started and turned it into a worldwide phen...

Shaheen also began a tradition that remains prevalent in the design of Hawaiian Aloha shirts today: horizontal button holes. Not all of his shirts had horizontal button holes but most did, although there does not seem to be a rhyme or reason why Shaheen deviated from the standard practice of making vertical button holes. Today, it's estimated that more than 60 percent of Hawaiian Aloha shirts have horizontal button holes, with even higher percentages for shirts made of rayon.

Some of the most popular early Shaheen prints riffed on ancient Asian imagery. There were prints featuring pines and plum trees, which represented a successful life, as well as tiger prints, which symbolized power. Shaheen also sourced his designs from the different cultures whose people had populated the islands. The results were classics prints such as Pua Lani Pareau, Antique Tapa, and Joss Sticks, which derive from Hawaiian, South Pacific, and Asian cultures respectively.

Historically, the preferred materials used to make Hawaiian Aloha shirts have been rayon, cotton, and silk. Many vintage shirt collectors prefer the rayon shirts to the other two because rayon has a way of separating colors, which brings out intricate details in, say, the people, dragons, and yellow trees that litter the surface of a black Surfrider Sportswear shirt. Much to the chagrin of collectors and enthusiasts, contemporary shirt manufacturers have begun using increasingly fine grades of polyester, which feel like rayon or silk, but are not.

Another characteristic of early Hawaiian Aloha shirts were collar loops at the neck. Back in the day, men wore their Aloha shirts buttoned at the neck—since Hawaiian shirts are associated with leisure, hardly anyone does so today. In addition, older shirts tend to have longer collars—by three or four inches—than shirts made from the 1950s onward. This can help a collector date a shirt.

By the mid-20th century, the Hawaiian Aloha shirt had become so popular that mass-produced knockoffs were a serious problem—indeed, garment fraud persists today. Many of these early imitations are cranked out on the mainland rather than on the islands, and more than a few end up on racks, online, and advertised as "vintage."

There are numerous ways for collectors to determine whether the vintage Hawaiian Aloha shirt they are thinking about buying is the real deal. The easiest fake to spot is the "reverse print.” Since the 1960s, some manufacturers have made shirts that appear sun-bleached on the outside but brand new and unfaded on the inside. Reverse prints were not made in the 1940s or 1950s.

Another dead giveaway is a separate fabric-care label in addition to the manufacturer's. Washing labels weren't added to shirts and other garments until the 1960s, so if you see an Aloha shirt from the 1940s with such a label, keep moving.

Then there are shirts with coconut buttons. If you spot one of these you could be looking at the genuine article. Coconut buttons basically only appear on shirts made in Hawaii and were far more prevalent in the early years of Hawaiian Aloha shirts. In addition, older shirts tended to only have three to five buttons down the front—six or more is quite common today.

Other marks of older Hawaiian Aloha shirts are cabana pockets—pockets at the waist as opposed to the chest—which were prevalent before 1970 but not since. And if you find a shirt with the size “ML” (for medium large) on the tag, that dates the shirt to at least the 1950s.

Today, some of the more collectible labels of Hawaiian Aloha shirts include Catalina, Kahanamoku, Kamehameha, Kahala, Hale Hawaii, Royal Hawaiian, Duke of Hollywood, and even J.C. Penney.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Black Tie Guide

The Black Tie Guide

Peter Marshall became an authority on formalwear out of necessity — he needed a tux to wear on the maiden transat… [read review or visit site]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage 1950's Tiger Asian Japan Pattern Crepe Hawaiian Shirt -m- NrGroovy Vintage 1975 Marijuana, Weed, Pot Hippy Tshirt Hawaii -- Pakalolo BroVintage 1940's "cali-fame" Butterfly Pattern Rayon Hawaiian Shirt -m- NrVintage 1950's Atomic Pineapple Pattern Rayon Hawaiian Rockabilly Shirt -m- NrVintage 1950's "kahala" Japan Dragon Pattern Silk Hawaiian Shirt -m- NrVintage 1950-60's - Waikiki Wear By Duke Of Hollywood - Aloha Hawaiian Shirt- XlReyn Spooner Hawaiian Shirt Size Xl/ NewVtg Hawaii 80s 90s Crew Neck Sweatshirt Medium Yellow Surf SkateParadise Found Vintage Hawaiian Shirt Chili Peppers Size M 100% RayonVtg Sovereign Xxl 2x Men Hawaiian Shirt Macaw Parrot Magnum Pi Jungle Love BirdsTommy Bahama L 100% Silk Vintage Hawaiian Short Sleeve Shirt Blue FloralVintage Made In Hawaii Hawaiian Shirt Blue S TikiVintage Hawaiian L Aloha Shirt Kahala Fish & Sea Life Rayon Free Ship1950s Kamehameha Blue And Red Palm Themed Hawaiian Short Sleeve Cotton Shirt-lMint~ Tommy Bahama ~ Navy ~ L ~ S/s ~ Back Print ~ Vtg ~ Hawaiian Shirt ~cysTrue Vintage Hawaiian Palm Aloha Shirt Bright Green Hibiscus Flowers Size LVintage Made In Hawaii Short Sleeve Button Front Hawaiian Shirt Men's Size LargeVintage Go Barefoot Small Hawaiian Shirt Vivid Colors Cotton Made In UsaVtg Mens J.crew M Casual Hawaiian Tiki Tribal Paisley Zen Print Shirt Short SleeVintage Ky's Hawaiian Island Parrot Surfboard Shirt 3xl Usa MadeKamehameha Vintage Hawaiian Shirt Men's L Brown & White Floral Short Sleeve Hawaiian Vintage Parrot Parakeet Mens L/xl Trinadad Tobago Shirt "unique"Howie Mens Shirt Size 3xl Blue Hawaiian Isles Palm Trees Flowers Cruise VintageVintage 70's Sears Hawaii Medium Vacation Hawaiian Shirt Green Red Black FloralVintage Ds Triumph Of California Surf/ Hawaiian Shirt - MediumColorful Vintage Pierre Cardin Hawaii Shirt - Rockabilly, Cruise, Aloha, Tiki, MExtra Long Vtg Mans Hawaiian Shirt Sz M Medium Rayon Golf Casual By: Cherokee Vintage Hawaiian Reserve Collection Men's Hawaiian Shirt Medium Blue Ukulele UsaVintage Red Man's Button Down Cotton Hawaiian Shirt With Seahorses LVintage Hawaiian Koi Kane Floral Shirt Red Size XlVintage Vtg Silk Aloha Hawaiian Shirt Relax Tommy Bahama Mens Xl Signature CampPolo Ralph Lauren L Vintage Camp Short Sleeve Hawaiian Palm Tree Hut ShirtVintage Kennington Hawaiian Shirt~brilliant Vivid Color~size Xl~ Vintage Inspired Hawaiian Shirt Blue LargeMen's Campia Moda 100% Cotton Vtg Retro Hawaiian Camp Bowling Shirt Size XlVintage Mens Hawaiian Shirt Styled By Rjc Made In Hawaii Xl

Recent News: Hawaiian Aloha Shirts

Source: Google News

Mourners say Bravo Zulu to late veteran, mayor
Daily Pilot, December 19th

Dressed in his signature Hawaiian shirt, white pants and military cap, Hammett was a fixture at many Veterans Day celebrations and other city functions. He spent 15 years on the Planning Commission and City Council, serving as mayor from 1972 to 1974...Read more

Step out, then duck into these LA hot spots for a drink
Los Angeles Times, December 19th

That guy in the Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts is the one debating world politics. Prime seat: One of two booths opposite the bar. They offer space to kick back, and if it's not too crowded, the bartender will come over and take your order. Sip and...Read more

Why office secret Santas are the worst idea ever
Dubuque Telegraph Herald, December 19th

The list of Terrible Workplace Ideas is long and storied and includes a wide array of soul-devouring activities, from team-building exercises and lunch-and-learns to Hawaiian shirt Friday and Bring Your Ferret to Work Day. (I might have made that last...Read more

126-year-old Catholic school unveils mural painted by SF art students
San Francisco Examiner, December 18th

In the outdoor recreation area of St. Brigid School, a giant bear in a Hawaiian shirt rides a red bicycle. Next to him, two penguins -- one with a bow tie and the other wearing a string of pearls -- waddle hand in hand (flipper in flipper?). A few feet...Read more

Carnival sails into Super Bowl
USA TODAY, December 18th

"There's not a Hawaiian shirt or pina colada within 1,000 miles" of this ad. In advance of the game consumers will be asked to use social media to help pick from four potential Carnival ads the one 60-second spot that will air on the game. One...Read more

The Man Arrested For Running The Top ISIS Twitter Account Is A Hawaiian-Shirt ...
Business Insider, December 13th

The best-known follower of ISIS jihadists on social media has been arrested in India after being unmasked by Channel 4. "ShamiWitness" was followed by 17,000 people on Twitter after his commentaries and insights into jihadist behaviour drew a worldwide ...Read more

The Hawaiian Shirt Is The Comeback Kid We're All Rooting For
Huffington Post, December 8th

huffyi You might know them as Hawaiian shirts, but in Hawaii, they go by a different name: aloha shirts. And they have come a long way since the days when your always-golfing uncle tried to look like Magnum, P.I.. Today, they're not just worn by...Read more

WANTED: Man in Hawaiian shirt steals golf clubs by hiding them in pants
WBXH, November 26th

16, a white male in his 50s walked into the shop wearing a light, multi-colored Hawaiian shirt, straw hat, and colored slacks. He purchased several small items and walked to the golf club display. According to reports While the clerk was attending to...Read more