Sewing New Futures for a Beloved Hawaiian Pattern
Adorned in their signature checkered palaka pattern, our new, limited-edition men’s Kīpuka Palaka and women’s Nohea Palaka slippers harken back to life in early 20th-century Hawai‘i, a time when fashion in the Islands was defined by the needs of Hawaiian paniolo (cowboys), plantation workers, and seaside stevedores searching for durable, lightweight workwear. Nearly a century later, we’re honored to breathe new life into this iconic pattern. Complemented with a soft-as-clouds shearling lining, our signature Drop-In Heel®, and a grippy rubber outsole, these exclusive slippers are must-haves for every winter wardrobe.
So, let’s get into the origin of palaka are where palaka came from…
Historically, the name palaka is a rough Hawaiian translation of the word “frock,” a reference to the notoriously loose-fitting shirts once worn by American and British sailors. Most commonly recognized today as a shirt, the origins of the palaka we know today actually began as a jacket that was favored by plantation workers and pineapple pickers, with the original color pattern limited to navy.
By the late 1930s, the sleeves of the jackets were commonly being cut off and the palaka was reshaped to the cut and sew we know and love today. While the aloha shirt may be Hawai’i’s most well-known gift to the fashion world, the timeless palaka deserves its place in the pantheon of prints. Although today its role in shaping the cultural fabric of the Islands is largely unknown outside of the state, the palaka shirt is truly a defining member of 20th-century island wear.
According to Dale Hope, author of The Aloha Shirt, many consider palaka to be even more kama‘aina (native-born) than the aloha shirt.
In fact, the 1932 Honolulu Chamber of Commerce noted that palaka paired with denim “have grown to be an almost national costume” so typically Hawaiian they had become by the 1930s.
A testament to Hawai‘i’s rich history as a cross-cultural melting pot, interestingly, some early adaptations of the palaka print were actually made by tailors in Japan. In the mid-1920s, the pattern, most typically worn as a collared, button-up short-sleeve shirt, began growing in popularity throughout the Islands. In the mid-’30s, tailors on O‘ahu began producing them en masse to keep up with growing demand.
“Palakas (blue and white checked shirts) and sailor mokus (blue denim trousers) have their place in the wardrobes of every Islander,” added the 1932 Honolulu Chamber of Commerce. “For years, the laborer has worn palaka to work and it has become a part of the cowboy’s picturesque character.”
In Waipahu, a historic Honolulu community once home to sprawling plantations, the Arakawa family became renowned tailors specializing in palaka. As the owners of Arawaka’s, a community-driven department store, the business outfitted countless workers over the years in the Hawaiian pattern.
Today, Zempan and Tsuru Arakawa, along with their son, Goro, are largely credited with the rise of the shirt’s popularity.
According to Dale Hope, Goro’s father immigrated to O‘ahu in the early 1900s and worked in Waipahu’s sweltering sugar plantations, first as a waterboy. After obtaining a sewing machine, Goro taught himself to cut and sew fabric, hand-making tabis (Japanese split-toe slippers), lunch bags, and clothing, before specializing in making palaka shirts
“Over time, Goro’s parents’ shop grew to be the largest rural department store in Hawaiʻi. Palaka, sturdy like twill, was favored by the sugar and pineapple plantation workers as it was durable and protected them while working outdoors,” wrote Hope. “Stevedores appreciated the durable cloth for their work on the docks and paniolo, wore ‘strong as iron’ palaka fabric for their rugged ranch work.”
By the mid-’30s, the Arakawa store became a home for anything and everything one might need in Waipahu, especially a new shirt that could hold up against Honolulu’s humidity. Many of the plantation workers referred to palaka as gobanji, Japanese for plaid.
By the 1950s, the pattern was being used everywhere in the Islands, appearing as curtains in homes and as surf trunks for men.
Eventually, with the tide of tourism ushering in new fashion, the beloved palaka print would be overshadowed by the almighty aloha shirt. And while aloha wear is now considered to be a pivotal component of all wardrobes, we’d be lying if we didn’t say a crisp blue or red palaka paired with a pair of stiff jeans, especially heading into the holidays, didn’t feel like the perfect way to upgrade your wardrobe. After all, what could be more befitting?
Don’t miss your chance to represent this proud Hawaiian print. Our palaka slippers are in limited supply.