Hawaiian print shirts, which are actually called Aloha Shirts, tend to have a polarizing effect on people. You either love the colorful, loose fitting button down that evokes the Aloha spirit, or you think it should be kept in the closet while on the mainland, only to be taken out of the closet for that island vacation. Wherever you fall on the fashion spectrum, Aloha shirts have a rich history tied to Hawaii’s cultural diversity.
In the 1920s and 30s, thousands of immigrants began arriving on the shores of Hawaii to work the sugarcane and pineapple farms that were flourishing in the tropical environment. Plantation farmers often wore Palaka shirts, which were short sleeved checkered shirts meant to be worn untucked. Also gaining popularity in the early 20th century were short sleeved shirts made out of leftover Kimono cloth, introduced to the islands by Japanese settlers. These two types of shirts evolved into what we now think of as the Aloha shirt: a brightly patterned button down meant to favor an easy breezy fit over a more tailored dress shirt.
A Honolulu shop owner named Ellery Chun is often credited with combining these elements into the shirts we know and love today. He coined the term “Aloha shirt” in 1936 while looking for a way to increase his clothing shop’s business following the lean years of the Great Depression. Interviewed by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1987, Chun said, “I was just trying to figure out a way to increase business in the store when I got the idea to promote a local style of shirt.” He’d struck upon a great apparel idea, but he didn’t yet know just how much it would catch on and remain a cultural icon decades later. “Since there was no pre-printed Hawaiian fabric around, I took patterned Japanese yukata cloth and had a few dozen short-sleeve, square-bottomed shirts made up for me. I put the shirts in the front window of the store with a sign that said ‘Aloha Shirts.’ They were a novelty item at first, but I could see that they had great potential.”
Ellery’s sister, Ethel, created original textile designs for the shirts that were inspired by the wildlife and landscape of Hawaii’s islands. These colorful prints evoked the Aloha spirit and laidback lifestyle of island natives. Chun’s original Aloha Shirt designs have been donated to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Textile Collection.
Aloha shirts then enjoyed mainstream popularity through the 1950s. Hollywood’s film stars helped to spread the love, with leading men Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra sporting Aloha shirts in the 1953 classic “From Here to Eternity.” Elvis was another famous fan. The rest, as they say, is history.