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 Reyn Spooner Usc Trojans Hawaiian Aloha Shirt Made In Hawaii Sz LVintage Paradise Found Hawaiian Shirt Hawaii Size 2xl Pink Flamingo 100% RayonRare Vtg 90's Mambo Loud Hawaiian Hawaii " Australian Beer Tree" Rayon ShirtVtg Andrade Men's L Hawaiian Print Lightweight Blazer Jacket Vhtf! Euc!Vintage Reyn Spooner Men's Kona Coffee Hawaii Aloha Camp Shirt 2xl 100% CottonRare Vtg 90's Mambo Loud Hawaiian Hawaii " Lobster" Viscose Rayon Shirt XlVintage 50's Riviera Rayon Floral Hawaiian Shirt Japan LHawaiian Vintage 70's Jersey Shirt Mesh Ringer Beach Print Athletic Tourist Vintage Handmade Fish Hawaiian Aloha Shirt 2xlVintage 70s Ui-maikai Schlitz Beer Gusto All Over Print Surf Hawaiian Shirt MmVtg 80s Jams World Vibrant Tropical Beach Beauty's Rockabilly Hawaiian Shirt LVintage Zane Grey Kahala Collection Cotton Hawaiian Mens Shirt Xl Button DownVintage 60's 70's Hawaiian Shirt Pacific Isle Creations Barkcloth Xl Wide LapelsVintage Aloha Hawaiian Shirt Tommy Bahama Embroidered Xl Vintage Ui Maikai Tapa Floral Blue Brown White Hawaiian Shirt Medium Reyn Spooner Vintage San Fransico Giants Baseball Hawaiian Shirt LargeReyn Spooner Vintage San Fransico Giants Baseball Hawaiian Shirt X- Large90's Vintage Mint Large Men's Original Avanti Hawaiian Shirt Washable Silk Rare!Vintage Reyn Spooner Christmas Shirts 1992 Hawaiian TraditionalsVintage Polo Ralph Lauren Caldwell Shirt Paisley Floral Cabana Bahama Hawaiian LJams World Hawaiian Aloha Shirt XxlReyn Spooner Vintage Hawaiian Usa Vacation Map Mens Campy Shirt XlVintage Reyn Spooner Hawaiian Traditionals Shirt, Size M 100% RayonVtg Used Iolani Hawaiian Shirt 100% Rayon Ukulele Record Made In Hawaii Sz LVintage Aloha Hawaiian Shirt Tori Richard Xxl 2xl Vintage Aloha Hawaiian Rockabilly Hipster Shirt Tori Richard XlVtg 50s Iolani Hawaiian Shirt Size Small (s)Vintage Reyn Spooner Christmas Shirts 1988 Hawaiian TraditionalsRalph Lauren Jamaica Hawaiian Shirt Vintage Style Rayon Exotic Hotel Size XlMen's Vintage Paradise Found Hawaiian Airplane Wood Button Shirt Size 2xl Darina Brand Vintage Hawaiian Aloha Mod Floral Print Shirt Larger SizeReyn Spooner Beautiful 'vintage Retro Vacation" Hawaiian Aloha Shirt ~sz Xl~Vintage Tahiti Imports Men's Floral Hawaiian Button Down Ss Blue/pink Xl ShirtMens Hawaiian Aloha Shirt Vintage ? Australia Brisbane Indigenous DesignMens Hawaiian Aloha Shirt Xl 50" Vintage Volkswagen Bus, Bug & Karmann GhiaMen's Lucky Brand 70's Vintage Yellow Hawaiian Shirt Large L 100% Linen Jams World Usa Fabulous Hawaiian Aloha Shirt Rayon Huge Flowers Xl Vtg 54"Vintage 1988 Reyn Spooner Mele Kalikimaka Christmas Aloha Hawaiian Shirt Xl 80'sPolo Ralph Lauren Hawaiian Vintage Camp Shirt Paisley Floral Size Small SVintage Hilo Hattie Hawaiian Shirt Size L Super Sweet Shirt Waialae Country ClubHot Rod, Hawaiian, Vintage-styled Shirts, Handmade, Many Sizes Available!1950s Hawaiian Shirt Vintage Cabana Nylon Tropical Palm Tree Print Rare Chest48Vintage Reyn Spooner Christmas Shirts 1990 Hawaiian TraditionalsVintage Hawaiian Shirt Button Up Size Xl Surf Beach Wear Sears Rare HtfKahala 1936 Mens Hawaiian Shirt 3xl Rayon Linen Cotton S/s Vintage Surfboard UsaVtg Tori Richard 60's/70's Blue Red Floral Hawaiian Shirt Sz M *rare!!*Vintage Florida Turnpike Locations Toll Attendant Hawaiian Shirt Tourism XlVintage Reyn Spooner Men's Large L Light Cotton Hawaiian Shirt Asian Looking RadIncredible Vintage Mens Jams World Neon Hawaiian Pineapple Shirt Lg Tropical 90sVtg Used Kahala Hawaiian Shirt Hrandcrafted Frolar Made In Hawaii Sz SmallVintage Hawaiian Shirt By Nani Of Hawaii Large 100 % PolyesterVintage Royal Hawaiian Xl Style 220 Shirt Electric Blue With White FlowersVintage Hawaiian Shirt Made In Hawaii Usa 2xl Pacific Legend Torquoise BlueVintage 70's Hawaiian Shirt By Pacific Isle Creations , Med,.tapa Print ,Vintage Op Sunwear Ocean Pacific Shirt Polo L Large Blue Beach Surfing HawaiiVintage Rjc Legends Of Hawaii Shirt Amazing Colors & Print Not Another On Ebay LVtg 70s Hawaiian Shirt Med/lg Hawaii Nei Honolulu Inv#949960's Vintage Mint Medium Men's Islander Hawaiian Beach Shirt 100% Rayon Euc90s Hipster Vintage Local Motion Hawaii Jacket - Pink & Acid Washed Black - MedTrue Vintage Hilo Hattie Hawaiian Aloha Men's Shirt Sz Large Tapa Design L

Recent News: Hawaiian Aloha Shirts

Source: Google News

There is no best shampoo: why a Marxist loves Trader Joe's
The Bowdoin Orient, October 23rd

I love Trader Joe's. I probably went there every other day this summer. The sliding doors would open to the kind of music my dad and I like, maybe James Taylor or Emmylou Harris, and a Hawaiian shirt-clad kid I went to high school with. He would greet...Read more

Foreign films lead new movies on Blu-ray, DVD this week
Deseret News, October 23rd

“The Fluffy Movie” (Universal//Blu-ray/DVD/Digial, PG-13, theatrical and extended, unrated versions). Gabriel Iglesias — the comedian clad in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt — takes the stage for another concert film, this one having received big-screen...Read more

Your Big Box Vacation
New York Times, October 23rd

She handed me a pamphlet with Mickey Mouse in a Hawaiian shirt on the cover and advised me to call a toll-free number or visit I went home and opened my laptop. Basic membership in a club mentioned above is about $50 a year and ...Read more

'Some Enchanted Evening' at the Jewish Community Day School benefit
The Times-Picayune -, October 23rd

Some people couldn't believe it when they saw Hugo Kahn, a leader in the New Orleans Jewish community, in a Hawaiian shirt and grass skirt, but there he was bedecked just so as the auctioneer for the live auction at the Jewish Community Day School ...Read more

Swapping the Hawaiian shirt for black leather jacket
Cornishman, October 22nd

ELEVEN years, nearly 500 shows in Europe and the USA plus countless miles on the highway lie behind surf punks The Razorblades, who started in 2002 to kick the Californian surf sound into the new millennium. On their new album, Snapshots From The ...Read more

Mayer Hawthorne Would Lose to Rihanna in a Fashion Face-Off
Racked NY, October 22nd

It has to be a very, very good Hawaiian shirt. There are a lot of Hawaiian shirts out there, and I would say 99% of them, I would never wear. But the 1% that are good are really excellent. I love those. You really have to dig for the right Hawaiian...Read more

SFStyle: Lauren Haugh and Auzy Freed love their Chubbies
SFGate, October 16th

He wears Nutter Hawaiian shirt from Chubbies (in pre-sale and available spring 2015); Khakmeister Chubbies shorts, Hillsboro shoes from Jack Threads, Breda Watch, *Persol Sunglasses. SFStyle: Lauren Haugh and Auzy Freed love their Chubbies...Read more

"Bearded Hawaiian shirt" student has no hard feelings about the incident
The Patriot Talon, October 7th

A subject fitting the description “bearded man wearing a Hawaiian shirt” was seen at 9:40 a.m. in the University Center. Police talked to the individual and he “was not deemed a threat” and was “very cooperative” according to Medders' statement...Read more