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    

True Vintage Hawaii Souvenir Tour Jacket Reversible Satin Tts King KamehamehaVintage Reyn Spooner Disney Mickey Mouse Hawaiian Shirt XlVintage Reyn Spooner Anaheim Angels World Series Champions Hawaiian Shirt Xl MlbAmazing Vintage Rayon Hawaiian Shirt (nos) Blue Size MGenuine Go Barefoot Mens Aloha Shirt Primo Hawaiian Vintage Beer Xl Short SleeveRalph Lauren Polo Vintage Camp Mens Shirt Hawaiian Surfing Beach Print Large L Vtg Matt Rider Drag Racing Hot Rod Xl Hawaiian Shirt Rat Fink Laguna Beach CaPolo Ralph Lauren Sport Mens Vtg Hawaiian Shirt Floral Button Down Sz Xl Red Amazing Vintage Rayon Hawaiian Shirt (nos) Red Size M1950s 50s Vintage Penneys Hawaiian Tiki Print Rayon Button Up Shirt Extra Large1950s 50s Vintage Penney's Brown Floral Hawaiian Tiki Rayon Button Shirt MediumVintage Reyn Spooner Xl Hawaiian Reverse Print Tropical Pullover Blue !!1950s 50s Vintage Red Hawaiian Tiki Print Kamehameha Men's Button Up Shirt1950s 50s Vintage Penneys Hawaiian Tiki Rayon Button Up Shirt Large 1950s 50s Vintage Penneys Hawaiian Tiki Print Button Up Rayon Shirt Medium1950s 50s Vintage Penney's Rayon Medium Hawaiian Tiki Button Up Shirt1950s 50s Vintage Penneys Rayon Hawaiian Tiki Print Button Up Shirt Large Paradise Found Hawaiian 2xl Magnum Pi Jungle Birds Red Aloha Shirt Vtg Cool!!!Vintage Reyn Spooner Reverse Print Shirt Men 3xl Tall Hawaiian Traditionals Vintage Hang Ten Shirt Black Stripe M No Pocket Skateboard Surfing Hawaii BeachMen's Vintage Reyn Spooner Hawaiian Shirt Muted Colors Sz L EucVintage Mens Hilo Hattie Aloha Hawaiian Shirt Blue Pink Short Sleeve Xl1950s 50s Vintage Penneys Medium Rayon Hawaiian Bird Print Button Up Shirt TikiReyn Spooner Vintage Hawaiian Shirt Xl Inside Out Flag Aloha Floral Button UpVintage Jams World Rayon Hawaiian Surf Beach Mens Shirt Size Xl Nice L@@kVtg Men's Alfred Shaheen By Reyn Spooner Hawaiian Reverse Print Shirt - XxlVintage 1950s - 1960s Hawaiin Island Art Men's Shirt Made In Hawaii Size MediumPolo Ralph Lauren Vintage Caldwell Hawaiian Camp Ss Shirt - Sz Large - Pink RedMen's Xl Ralph Lauren Polo Vintage Camp Shirt Hawaiian Red Linen/cotton EucReyn Spooner Men's Vintage Hawaiian Shirt Size Xxxl Or 3xlVintage Malihini Mens Hawaiian Shirt Neon Welt Pocket Loop Collar Crazy Rare1970's Vintage Tori Richard Aloha Hawaiian Shirt Cotton Xl For Liberty House NosTrue Vtg Floral And Paisley Hawaiian Shirt, Made Hawaii, Men's S (small), HippieParadise Found White Floral Wooden Button Mens Vtg Rayon Shirt Sz 2xl HawaiiMen's Xl Haband Of Paterson Hawaiian Sport Shirt Polyester Cotton Blend VintageVintage Mens Paradise Found Regal Cocktail Hawaiian 100% Rayon Shirt 2xVtg Reyn Spooner Surf Boards Hawaiian Shirt Mens XxlRare Vintage Reyn Spooner "caribbean Map" Hawaiian Aloha Shirt Spun Rayon LargeVtg. Reyn Spooner Hawaiian Shirt Village Scenes Guy Buffet Collection Size LargeReyn Spooner, Men's L, Hawaiian Shirt, Vintage, Reverse Print Design, NiceVintage Mens Hilo Hattie Aloha Hawaiian Shirt Blue Short Sleeve Floral 2xlMen's Vtg Zucchini 80's Surfer Colorful Tropical Hawaiian Camp Shirt MVtg 70-80's Op Ocean Pacific Hawaiian Reverse Print Shirt Blue ~medium~s/sVintage Kahala Hawaiian Mens Camp Shirt Floral Design 100% Cotton M Hawaii MadeVintage Jams World Rayon Floral Muscle Beach Aloha Surf Line Hawaii Camp ShirtVtg Islander M Hawaiian Aloha Vacation Shirt Floral Black White Green Made UsaVintage 80's Original Jams Surf Line Tropical Hawaiian Aloha Shirt Size XlVintage Reve Rayon Hawaiian Turquoise With Floral Print Shirt Made In Haiti Sz MVintage Xl Tommy Bahamas Hawaiian Shirt Brown W/blue Floral 100% SilkVintage Reyn Spooner Cotton Hawaiian Shirt Medium Lg Button UpVintage Reyn Spooner Xl Hawaiian Reverse Print Floral Orange Blue !!Vintage Winner Mate Surfing Photo Postcard Polo Hawaiian Aloha Shirt Xl ExcVintage Hawaiian Style Men's Shirt, Old Navy, Tropical Flowers, Size Xl, Nice!Vintage Islander Brand Hawaiian Shirt - Size Xl - Cars, Girls, Trees PreownedVintage Royal Creations Short Sleeve Hawaiian Beach Size S Mens ShirtVtg University Of Hawaii Uh Hoodie Hooded Sweatshirt Xl 50/50 College Togs UsaVintage Sears Kings Road Hawaiian Shirt Men's Size MediumReyn Spooner Hawaiian Traditionals Men's Shirt, Xl, Great Design, Vintage Look Vintage Hawaiian Shirt Sz Ltall Caribbean Joe 100% Rayon Lt Green W/blue Floral Vintage Mid 1960's Ui-maikai Da-glo Border Print Hawaiian Shirt Aloha!

Recent News: Hawaiian Aloha Shirts

Source: Google News

Staff make a splash at Owatonna Junior High School, May 28th

The beach-ready teacher was joined by more than 20 other staff members — like science teacher Jason Kaytor decked out with leis and a Hawaiian shirt — to jump, dive or even belly-flop into the pool on the 80-degree afternoon. A handful of...Read more

Meet the 3 Delawareans playing Firefly (again)
The News Journal, May 28th

I had a Hawaiian shirt on. As I walked up to one of those VIP entrances that are filled with older dudes who have their [stuff] together and are prepared. They have their CamelBaks and I'm hammered with my drink. Walking up, I'm about to get stopped at...Read more

3000 Donors Needed For Summer Kickoff Blood Drive
The Chattanoogan, May 28th

Blood Assurance has designated a theme to each day of Summer Kickoff week, including the following: Hawaiian ShirtMonday, where donors may wear themed attire; Cool Shades Tuesday, where donors receive free sunglasses; Summer HatWednesday, ...Read more

Ninth annual Trail Creek Fun Float goes Hawaiian, May 27th

The luau will feature Polynesian and American food, games, and an ugly Hawaiian shirt contest with special prizes for the "most memorable" Hawaiian shirt or muumuu. The ninth annual Trail Creek Fun Float is a Coastal Awareness Month event which is part ...Read more

Onstage at last: Memorable moments of National Spelling Bee
Sacramento Bee, May 27th

Nick Sarji of Kailua, Hawaii, represented his home state with a teal-and-black Hawaiian shirt. But he wasn't up there for long. His word in Round 2 was "xylophone," and he spelled it without bothering to confirm the definition or etymology. He did the...Read more

Annual Trail Creek Fun Float goes Hawaiian
The Herald Argus, May 26th

MICHIGAN CITY — The Northwest Indiana Paddling Association will hold its ninth annual Trail Creek Fun Float on May 31. The group is celebrating the kickoff of the paddling season on Trail Creek with a tiki themed Fun Float and party...Read more

Lara Stone is bright and breezy in Hawaiian-inspired shirt and chic white ...
Daily Mail, May 21st

And she followed up her appearance at the Cannes Film Festival Youth premiere with a mini photoshoot on Thursday, where she posed for pictures in a Hawaiian shirt and white trousersuit. Lara, 31, looked bright and breezy in her summery ensemble with ...Read more

Use data to drive culture – not 'Hawaiian shirt Fridays', says Decoded expert
Recruiter, May 18th

“It's never about having a 'Hawaiian shirt Friday' – it never works, and everyone hates it.” Find out what employees themselves value, she said, then “build a culture with intent instead of blind guessing. You can choose what to amplify and what to get...Read more