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    

Mens Vtg 50s 60s Nos Terry Cloth Shirt Tshirt Hawaiian Surf Champknit HanesVintage 1950's National Shirt Shops Silky Aloha Hawaiian Shirt With PineapplesVintage Hawaiian Dress With Mans Matching Shirt Ui-maikai Nice Vintage SetVintage Reyn Spooner Usc Trojans Hawaiian Aloha Shirt Made In Hawaii Sz LVintage 1950's 1960's Kamehameha Hawaiian Shirt Sz M Cotton Loop Collar Mint!Vintage Paradise Found Hawaiian Shirt Hawaii Size 2xl Pink Flamingo 100% RayonRare Vtg 90's Mambo Loud Hawaiian Hawaii " Australian Beer Tree" Rayon ShirtRare Vtg 90's Mambo Loud Hawaiian Hawaii " Lobster" Viscose Rayon Shirt XlHawaiian Vintage 70's Jersey Shirt Mesh Ringer Beach Print Athletic Tourist Vintage Used Reyn Spooner Reverse Blue Hawaiian Aloha Shirt Size=xl Great ShapeSears Vintage 70's Hawaiian Shirt , Med, Ex. CondVintage Zane Grey Kahala Collection Cotton Hawaiian Mens Shirt Xl Button DownVintage Reyn-spooner Hawaiian Shirt LargeReyn Spooner Red & Aqua Short Sleeved Button Up Hawaiian Shirt Mens XlVintage Aloha Hawaiian Shirt Tommy Bahama Embroidered Xl Vtg 50s 60s Waikiki-wear Hawaiian Shirt Rockabilly Elvis Blue Hawaii Mens XlMens Ralph Lauren Polo Vintage Camp Shirt Hawaiian Hula Girls 100% Viscose Sz LVintage Polo Ralph Lauren Caldwell Shirt Paisley Floral Cabana Bahama Hawaiian LVtg Tommy Bahama Hawaiian Tropical Silk Shirt Xxl Cruise Camp Aloha Hawaii Reyn Spooner Vintage Hawaiian Usa Vacation Map Mens Campy Shirt XlVintage 60's 70's Hawaiian Shirt Pacific Isle Creations Barkcloth Xl Wide LapelsVintage Hilo Hatties Hawaiian Shirt ,lrg, Ex. CondVintage Reyn Spooner Hawaiian Traditionals Shirt, Size M 100% RayonVintage Aloha Hawaiian Shirt Tori Richard Xxl 2xl Vintage Aloha Hawaiian Rockabilly Hipster Shirt Tori Richard XlVintage 1950s Silk Kahala Hawaiian Shirt, Hawaiian Fishing ScenesVtg Reyn Spooner 2002 Hawaiian Shirt The Beach Boys Little Deuce Coupe Blue L LgVtg 50s Iolani Hawaiian Shirt Size Small (s)Vtg. Nepuca Surf Style Rayon Flying Dragon & Mt.fuji Aloha Hawaiian Shirt Sz MVintage 1960s Malihini Hawaiian Aloha Shirt 100% Cotton Top Stitching Size M/lVintage 50s/60s Mens Hawaiian Hibiscus Textured Loop Collar Button Shirt MVtg Men's ~reyn Spooner Ui Hoosiers Indiana ~casual Hawaiian Style Button Up ~ LVintage 70s Ui-maikai Schlitz Beer Gusto All Over Print Surf Hawaiian Shirt MmRalph Lauren Jamaica Hawaiian Shirt Vintage Style Rayon Exotic Hotel Size XlDarina Brand Vintage Hawaiian Aloha Mod Floral Print Shirt Larger SizeMens Size M Bold Blue Hawaiian Tiki Theme Shirt Vintage UkulelesSize Large Vintage Scorpio Usa Tiki Lounge Hula Dancer Tropical Hawaiian ShirtVintage Paradise Found Hawaiian Mens Shirt Natives Rayon Extra Large XlVintage Malihini Palm Trees Pineapples Hibiscus Florals Hawaiian Shirt Large Mens Vintage Kolekole Hawaiian Shirt Sz L Rainbows & SunsetsVintage 1988 Reyn Spooner Mele Kalikimaka Christmas Aloha Hawaiian Shirt Xl 80'sPolo Ralph Lauren Hawaiian Vintage Camp Shirt Paisley Floral Size Small SHot Rod, Hawaiian, Vintage-styled Shirts, Handmade, Many Sizes Available!Vintage Reyn Spooner Christmas Shirts 1988 Hawaiian TraditionalsVintage Reyn Spooner Christmas Shirts 1990 Hawaiian TraditionalsVintage Reyn Spooner Christmas Shirts 1992 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 60s Jantzen Kona Kai Brown Tapa Tribal Tiki Barkcloth Hawaiian Shirt L UsaMens Vintage Santa Claus Vacation Hawaiian Shirt Scuba Bbq LargeUnique Vintage Ocean Pacific Inside Out Floral Hawaiian Beach Shirt Black MediumVintage Hawaiian Luau ShirtVintage Barefoot In Paradise Hawaiian Shirt Sz L Brown Tiki Tapa Pattern HawaiiVintage Hawaiian Geisha Shirt History Of Book Sz M Rayon Made In JapanVintage 1950's 1960's Tropicana Hawaiian Shirt Sz M Cotton Loop Collar Mint!Vintage Apocalypse Now Hawaiian Camp Shirt M L Niebaum Coppola RareVintage Hawaiian Shirt By Nani Of Hawaii Large 100 % PolyesterVintage Royal Hawaiian Xl Style 220 Shirt Electric Blue With White FlowersIncredible Vintage Mens Jams World Neon Hawaiian Pineapple Shirt Lg Tropical 90sVtg Hawaiian Vintage Mens Hawaiian Shirt Xxl, Cotton, Blue Floral, Usa, Euc

Recent News: Hawaiian Aloha Shirts

Source: Google News

'Ebola Czar' still not ready for prime time
Breitbart News (blog), October 21st

The only way it could get funnier would be if Klain rolled into his first meeting drunk, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and escorted by a couple of Vegas showgirls. And the only way for Barack Obama to demonstrate greater contempt for the concerns of the...Read more

Gabriel Iglesias' THE FLUFFY MOVIE Out on Blu-ray/DVD Today
Broadway World, October 20th

"Fluffy," the world-famous Hawaiian shirt-clad comedian, takes viewers on a joke-filled journey into his life in this nonstop laugh fest. The funnyman delves into subjects such as the joys of parenting a teen, the similarities between India and Mexico...Read more

EDIT DESK: In the name of Halloween
The Brown and White, October 20th

Aside from the college culture promoting risky dress, Halloween is a true demonstration of the double standard between men and women. How many boys have you seen wearing a Hawaiian shirt and claiming it to be a costume? Now think about how much ...Read more

Michigan GOP airs 'Sharknado'-inspired ad
CNN, October 20th

The Michigan Republican Party has a new 30-second spot featuring Peters' face imposed on top of a Hawaiian shirt-wearing body, running away from a tornado that's spewing sharks out of the sky around him. One loudly belches up a wad of cash...Read more

Treasure Island Music Festival: St. Lucia's 'Ridiculous' Onstage Outfits
Hollywood Reporter, October 20th

The store owners gave us some money and said, “You guys can pick anything out from the shop” — and that's where I found my first Hawaiian shirt. At first everyone was like, “Dude, you look like John Candy, this is terrible.” But I was like, “Well f--k...Read more

Waterford top cop suspected of sign theft may sue
The Detroit News, October 19th

McCaw — dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and a baseball cap — is seen stepping out of the vehicle. He appears to remove something from the ground and toss it inside the vehicle. The footage then shows the chief getting back into his vehicle, at...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. Auzy Freed and Lauren Haugh in Chubbies: She wears Custom ...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