Aloha for All

Tracing the iconic island garment’s history, from its hazy origins to its rise as Hawaiʻi’s unofficial uniform.

Photo by John Hook, Kainoa Reponte ans Skye Yonamine
Text by Eunica Escalante

Since the early 20th century, the aloha shirt has represented the essence of fashion in Hawaiʻi. Through the decades, it had come to symbolize everything from innovative island wear to a kitschy costume before it was once again revived by contemporary designers to become the islands’ premier expression of style. 

Today, the iconic garment is woven into locals’ daily lives. Politicians sport crisp styles, eschewing the starch suit-and-ties of their continental counterparts. Meanwhile, the fashionable set opts for modern takes by local designers or unique vintage finds. And the old timers bring out their trusty button-downs, sporting them at a baby’s first luau, a beachside wedding, and everything in between. Recently, luxurious renditions by fashion houses like Valentino and Saint Laurent have shown the rest of the world the aloha shirt’s stylish potential. But, of course, nothing can beat a Hawaiʻi-made original.

Yet despite its ubiquity across the islands, the garment’s origins have proven difficult to unravel. “There are many stories about the “who” and the “how” of the creation of the first Aloha shirt,” writes Dale Hope in The Aloha Shirt: The Spirit of the Islands, a historical compendium on the garment. “There are school kids, Waikiki beachboys, tailors, and vacationing movie stars, each of whom has a convincing tale regarding the creation of the Aloha shirt.”

The aloha shirt’s colorful history manifests in its diverse array of prints.

In the early years of the 20th century, the islands’ sewers and tailors were focused on supplying utilitarian outfits for locals, many of whom worked all day toiling in the plantation fields. Meanwhile, island visitors wore a daily uniform of breezy linen suits in the only socially acceptable daytime color of the time: white. A growing immigrant population brought the garments of their homelands in the form of foreign fashions and unique textiles. Drawn to what must have seemed like exotic wares, tourists began sporting imported Chinese pongee, handwoven silk made into suits and dresses.

Then, in the late 1920s, a new form of dress emerged. Short-sleeved three-button pullovers in breezy fabrics, perfect for the islands’ balmy weather, worn untucked. They featured vibrant patterns reminiscent of Japanese yukata and Tahitian pareu, the first threads of the garment’s signature style. By the following decade, the aloha shirt was everywhere: on Bing Crosby while posing for photo ops in Waikīkī; sported by actor John Barrymore as he vacationed in the islands; and in the wardrobes of Hawaiʻi’s stylish set.

The Aloha shirt's "golden age" began in the 1930s and lasted until the 1950s, marking a period of prolific production and cultural significance. This era coincided with Hawaii's economic transformation from an agricultural stronghold, supported by a myriad of plantations, to a burgeoning tourist haven. According to historical records, local tailors shifted their focus "from producing work clothes to sports and casual wear," adapting to the evolving market demands and laying the foundation for the aloha shirt's prominence locally and among visitors.

As the garment's popularity surged, its style evolved significantly. Initially crafted from imported immigrant textiles, the Aloha shirt was reimagined by local manufacturers into a unique expression of Hawaiian culture and identity. This transition reflected the islands' socio-economic changes and underscored local businesses' adaptability and ingenuity in responding to new opportunities.

Kahala, established in the 1930s, has been instrumental in defining the Aloha shirt. The brand proudly upholds its legacy as the original creator of the Aloha shirt, infusing each piece with the timeless spirit of Aloha. Tom Park states, "With Kahala’s rich history, dating back to the 1930s, we have an incredible archive of heritage prints that we are reimagining into prints that are just as relevant today. Telling the stories of Hawai‘i’s past is an important part of maintaining the legacy of the Aloha Shirt. It’s an honor for us as a brand to be a part of the history and the future of the Aloha Shirt."

Though World War II dealt a blow to the industry—halting textile supply and disrupting the islands’ burgeoning tourist industry—by the ’40s, the aloha shirt was firmly a part of the fabric of the islands. 

Visiting servicemen sported the garment while off-duty. “Shirts with Hawaiian and Polynesian design motifs provided popular proof that a GI had been to Hawaii,” Hope writes. Meanwhile, Hawaiʻi’s politicians were legislating in favor of the shirt. Still mandated to coats and ties, even in the summer heat, a breezy aloha shirt would have given the legislators some much-needed comfort. But it would take another 30 years for the garment to be approved dress for the state capitol.

As Hawaiʻi’s tourist industry grew, so did the aloha shirt’s global prominence. Vacationers brought the apparel back home as proud souvenirs. For visitors, the shirt came to symbolize the allure of the islands. Lightweight fabrics signified tropical ease, while the vivid patterns hinted at what was back then a vague exoticness about the Pacific. But shirts didn’t translate well outside of Hawaiʻi. By the ’60s, the rest of the world saw the garment as kitschy Hawaiiana. 

But forward-thinking designers helped save the aloha shirt from falling into irrelevance. There was Reyn Spooner, whose reversed pattern look would influence the garment’s aesthetics for decades, and Surfline, best known for the 1965 Life spread that made aloha wear stylish again. 

Today, as a new wave of local brands emerges, they build upon this foundation. Makers like Roberta Oaks find retro inspiration in the styles of the ’30s and ’40s. Meanwhile, creatives like David Shepard use their Aloha shirts to promote sustainability. Native Hawaiian designers like Sig Zane dive into their heritage for garments that authentically reflect a Hawaiian sense of place.