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    

Vtg 40s Mark Twain Rayon Loop Collar Hawaiian Shirt Med Fish Atomic Aloha 50sReyn Spooner Aloha Shirt Fish Art Hawaiian Reverse Print Blue Vtg Mens, MVintage Hawaiian Shirt Hale Hawaii Rayon? 1950's?Lot Of 4 Crazy Shirts And Kliban Cats Medium Excellent Condition Vintage Hawaii1950s Alfred Shaheen Aloha Hawaiian Shirt Hand Printed " Kyoto" TextileVintage 1950s Red Silk Hawaiian Aloha Shirt King Kamehameha Statue L/xlVintage 1950s Cotton Hookano Hawaiian Aloha Shirt With Fishing Design Med 46" Vintage Royal Hawaiian Shirt 1970s Iolani Tiki Bar Maui . Med/lrg SurfingLot 12 Men's Vtg Hawaiian Shirts Hilo Hattie, Nalu, Royal Creations Cotton S-mVtg Hang Ten Brown Medium M Shirt Striped Shirt Skateboard Surfing Hawaii BeachVtg Mens Reyn Spooner Exotic Tropical Cocktail Mai Tai Hawaiian Shirt Rayon LVintage 1980s Samoa Hawaiian Shirt Samoan PowerGo Barefoot Aloha Hawaiian Shirt, Medium, Primo Beer, 100% Cotton, Made In Usa Vtg John Severson By Kahala 100% Rayon Ukulele Band Hawaiian Camp Shirt Size LVintage 1960s Kamehameha Hawaiian Shirt Vtg Reyn Spooner Mens Reverse Pullover Shirt Xl Floral Hawaiian 4 ButtonAloha Republic Nwot Mens Blue Vintage Woody Cars Surfboard Usa Hawaiian Shirt MLot Of 6 Vintage Retro 60's 70's Hawaiian Shirts Aloha Shirt Tiki Surfer HippieVintage Hawaiian Shirt (l) Floral Rayon 70s Reyn Spooner Swag Tropical Wavy DopeMen's Vintage Hawaiian Honolulu "club Yoshiko" "don" Bowling Shirt -l-Hawaiian Resort Shops Tiki Barkcloth Shirt Men's 44 ChestLot Of 3 4xl Hawaiian Shirts Vintage Silk Island Passport FloralGorgeous Vtg Mens Kahala "ron Anderson" Island Print Hawaiian ShirtVtg Kilauea Aloha Camp Hawaiian Shirt M Medium ..perfect Condition 100% CottonVintage Hawaiian Shirt Made In Hawaii LargeEuc Mens Vintage Super Bowl Xxxvii Nfl Football Aloha Hawaiian Rayon Shirt LEuc Vtg Mens Barefoot In Paradise Aloha Floral Hawaiian Casual Shirt 2xlt TallTommy Bahama Vintage Hibiscus Hawaiian Men's Short Sleeve Camp Shirt M S1321Vintage Hawaiian Shirt XxlVtg Rjc Hawaiian Shirt 3xl Tropical Aloha Moon Beach Hibiscus 100% Cotton ColorsVtg 80s Reyn Spooner Mens Sz Xl Tiki Face/floral Hawaiian Shirt 4buttondnss NwotVintage Towncraft Jc Penney Hawaiian Shirt-aloha-surfer-luau-beach-lounge-Vintage Jams World Men's Surf Line Hawaii Multi-color Casual Shirt Size LargeVintage 70s Hawaiian Shirt Pomare Size MCultural Fashions By Elaine Vintage Hawaiian Shirt Size Xl

Recent News: Hawaiian Aloha Shirts

Source: Google News

Taking the plunge
Foster's Daily Democrat, February 6th

HAMPTON BEACH – The temperature was balmy compared to last year, said repeat participants in the eighth annual High School Plunge benefiting Special Olympics New Hampshire and Project UNIFY! “This year was a piece of cake,” said Portsmouth High ...Read more

Remember when - The Beach Boys played Cawley Stadium?
Lowell Sun, February 6th

On Sept. 7, 1987, over 13,000 fans gathered at Cawley Stadium in Lowell to attend the Beach Boys concert. Did you attend this concert and were you wearing a Hawaiian shirt and dancing in the drizzling rain? Regarded as one of the most iconic American ...Read more

The X-Files Creators Still Need to Show the Fans Who's Boss
Vanity Fair, February 5th

I'm all for fun and have the Hawaiian shirt to prove it, but I thought it was only spottily amusing and by the end a flapping nuisance, stuck in its own pastiche as if to flypaper. Everything about it seemed tackily overdone and distended, from the...Read more

This is what it feels like to be a Chargers fan
The San Diego Union-Tribune, February 5th

So I donned my blue and yellow Hawaiian shirt and made it down to the stadium in time, only to realize the friend with the tickets was from L.A. — and a Raiders fan. Guess where our seats were? I sat through the game, in the middle of Raider Nation...Read more

Handsome Harry Styles is hard to miss in Hawaiian shirt as he shops solo in ...
Mirror.co.uk, February 2nd

The floppy-haired teen pin-up was looking his usual handsome self in the colourful Hawaiian shirt which was unbuttoned to his chest to show off the top of his butterfly tattoo. Harry, who celebrated turning 22 on Monday, was pictured browsing through...Read more

Man accused of punching Tampa police horse at Gasparilla
Tampabay.com, February 2nd

According to arrest records, the chocolate brown thoroughbred was minding his own business around 3 p.m. Saturday when a guy in a red Hawaiian shirt sidled on by and clocked him in the schnoz. No explanation for the attack was given in the arrest report...Read more

Wear a Hawaiian shirt to Opera House fundraiser
Crow River Media, January 30th

Tickets are sold at the door. Wear your favorite Hawaiian shirt, parrot hat or, if you're gutsy, brave the cold in shorts and sandals. The Opera House is at 136 N. Marshall Ave., Litchfield. For more information, call 320-434-0334, or email litchopera...Read more

#BringAlfHome: Stuffed Toy Missing from Tallahassee Restaurant
WTXL ABC 27, January 29th

The toy in question is a stuffed Alf doll wearing a Hawaiian-shirt. "If you see Hawaiian-shirt Alf, do the right thing and bring him back to where he belongs," said the post. In the comments, Voodoo Dog said the toy was taken from its Gaines Street...Read more