1 April 2016
Love it or hate it, daggy or not, the Hawaiian shirts turns heads, writes Tatyana Leonov.
Before I met author Dale Hope, I thought aloha shirts (or Hawaiian shirts as they’re known around the world) were daggy. I owned one when I was a teen – I remember Dad bought it for me from Big W. It was off-white with a strawberry-red hibiscus flower pattern and made from a horrible stretchy material. Oh and the label read “XS” (I was not).
I wore it for a year, perhaps, and then I have no idea what happened to it. I didn’t care. After that period in my life, whenever I saw people wearing Hawaiian shirts they never looked trendy. And clearly at the age of 15, I knew all there was to know about style.
Fast-forward 15 years (or so, who’s counting?) and I arrive in Hawaii for the first time. The first thing I notice upon landing is that the men and women greeting arrivals (you know the ones holding up the signs with names) are all wearing Hawaiian shirts. It’s a millisecond thought: they sort of look okay.
As the days progress I see Hawaiian shirts everywhere. I pass a wedding convoy and notice all the men are wearing (in my eyes) their brightest aloha shirts (I learn that they’re considered formal wear and certainly standard attire for a wedding) and plenty of waiters and shop attendants wear them as part of their uniform.
When I meet Dale, author of The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands (to be re-released mid this year by Patagonia) and Hawaii’s go-to guy for anything to do with aloha shirts, I’m keen to learn more.
Evolution of a classic
In the 1880s, Japanese immigrants, along with the Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Portuguese, travelled to Hawaii to work in the sugar and pineapple plantations. The Japanese brought along kimonos and, looking for ways to make additional income, began sewing garments from the unused kimono material.
The story of who designed the first shirt is blurred, but Honolulu tailor, Musa-Shiya Shoten, ran the first newspaper ad for the shirts in 1935 – “ready made or made to order 95 cents up.” Ellery Chun, who some credit as the inventor of the shirt, was the first to register the trademarks “Aloha Sportswear” in 1936 and “Aloha Shirt” in 1937.
Dale remembers chatting to Musa-Shiya’s widow, Dolores Miyamoto, 15 years ago. “It took me six months to organise the meeting because she was scared to talk to strangers,” says Dale. “She said that [American actor] John Barrymore pointed at the kimono fabric and asked her to make him a shirt out of it. She said: ‘I made the first aloha shirt. But no big deal, the Chinese man down the street [Ellery Chun], he get all the credit! But no big deal’.”
Not long after, the chaotically- patterned shirts underwent mass production and merchants got clever. “They started producing shirts that were relevant to Hawaii,” Dale says. “Instead of Mount Fuji it was Diamond Head [volcanic crater in Oahu], instead of pine trees it was coconut trees, and instead of bamboo boats they had canoes. Then came the beach boys and surfers and flowers.”
Hollywood star power heightened popularity (Elvis and Shirley Temple were just a couple of the big names donning the flamboyant creations) and international tourists followed suit. Dale writes in his book: “Nothing painted a more vivid picture of Hawaii than these bold shirts with their colorful Island images.”
All styled up
Today the aloha shirt is synonymous with Hawaiian culture, but designers have had to adapt to appeal to the evolving market. “The 20- and 30-year-olds like wearing the shirts on their terms,” says Dale. “The print could be interpreted in a new way, the shirt might be slimmer cut, perhaps it’s made from organic material.”
I get what Dale is saying and walk out of Quiksilver on Waikiki Beachwalk (where I caught up with Dale) with an aloha shirt for my husband, an “Aloha Aku Aloha Mai” trademark shirt – a Dale Hope design only available in certain Quiksilver stores and only in Hawaii. And although my husband similarly considered them to be daggy, he’s had a change of heart and wears his aloha shirt all the time.