HONOLULU, HI – On July 1, Hawai‘i will celebrate the birthday of a very special American icon who was born and raised in the Hawaiian Islands – despite the fact that the state cannot turn up a birth certificate as proof of citizenship.
No, it’s not President Obama.
It is, in fact, the equally well-known Hawai‘i icon – the aloha shirt.
For three-quarters of a century, the aloha shirt has been Hawai‘i’s most enduring symbol of the relaxed, laid-back, and tropical lifestyle of the islands.
Different tales have circulated for decades about the origins of Hawai‘i’s aloha shirt. Some say its roots can be traced to the kapa cloth found throughout the Pacific, made from pounding and dyeing tree bark. Others claim it was inspired by the tail-out shirts of Filipino immigrants, or elegant kimono cloth from Japan, or the vivid floral prints of Tahiti. No one is absolutely sure and the origin of the aloha shirt has many parents.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the tradition of beautifully sewn printed shirts spread from the Asian dry-goods merchants and home-sewers in Honolulu to the tailors and dressmakers, creating a new style of colorful clothing. Hawai‘i was emerging as a paradise for tourists, and visitors arriving by ship were charmed by hula dancers swaying to the rhythm of the ‘ukulele, boys riding the waves on their great wooden surfboards, and the colorful opennecked loose-fitting aloha shirts.
In 1946, the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce appropriated US$1,000 to study suitable designs for clothing businessmen could more comfortably wear in Hawai‘i’s tropical climate. A resolution was passed to allow open-necked sports shirts during the hottest months from June through October. The aloha shirt was specifically excluded because of loud patterns. The following year during the annual Aloha Week celebration, an exception was made to allow the wearing of casual aloha attire – the more colorful the better – for the entire week. With this breakthrough, the trend would continue to expand.
Soon, visitors and locals alike were donning these wearable postcards awash with coconut trees, surfers, outrigger canoes, hula girls, and endless varieties of colorful tropical flowers, birds, and fish.
Duke Kahanamoku, Hawai‘i’s most beloved surfer and Olympic swimming champion, was the earliest and greatest promoter of the aloha shirt. Duke even had his own line of shirts that are widely coveted by collectors today. Many other celebrities from Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley and Tom Selleck of Magnum P.I. were widely photographed wearing the shirts.
The modern era of the aloha shirt began in the 1960s. In 1962, the Hawaiian fashion guild staged “Operation Liberation,” presenting two aloha shirts to each male legislator in the State House and Senate. The Senate passed a resolution urging the regular wearing of aloha attire from Lei Day, May 1, and throughout the summer months. In 1966, Aloha Friday – the precursor to casual Fridays – came into being, and businessmen began the trend of wearing aloha shirts to work. By the end of the 1960s, the wearing of aloha shirts for business dress any day of the week was accepted.
Today, there are aloha shirts for every occasion and fancy – staid button down shirts for businessmen; elegant shirts for weddings and nights out on the town; sporty shirts for surfers and beach bums; and extra vibrant shirts often preferred by tourists.
Whether you fancy a collectible from the 1930s or a modern style of today, the aloha shirt remains a symbol of the casual, carefree, and graceful Hawai‘i lifestyle. It’s caught on everywhere – from Los Angeles to Australia – and every tropical destination in the world has adopted the born-in-Hawai‘i aloha shirt – even that guy Tommy in the Bahamas!