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.