How Asians Invented The Iconic Hawaiian Shirt

Its loud patterns and brightly-colored designs have given the Hawaiian shirt its distinctive look that almost always evokes a positive sunshiny vibe to the wearer.

While its aesthetics may not be for everyone, the Hawaiian shirt, also called the “Aloha shirt” in Hawaii, has undeniably stood the test of time. Since its creation in the early 1900s and evolution in the decades that followed, the iconic short-sleeved and collared garment has undergone several transformations.

During the 1880s, American-owned businesses controlled a significant portion of the Hawaii local economy. To save on labor costs, American plantation owners hired Chinese, Korean, Portuguese and Japanese workers.

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As the immigrants came pouring over, they brought with them goods from back home. The Chinese were the first to introduce multicolored silks to Hawaii. The Japanese brought bright kimono fabrics, while Filipinos carried with them the Barong Tagalog, a loose-fitting long-sleeved traditional shirt from the Philippines.

With the blending of foreign influences, the design for Hawaiian shirts began to take form, with the additional inspiration of the native fashion at the time. Back then, Hawaiians had been wearing clothes made with the tapa (or “kapa”) cloth. The material, made from tree bark, was often colored with vegetable dyes that would fade quickly.

As new fabrics brought by the immigrants gain popularity among locals, a fusion of designs and materials began catching on. Field workers who were in need of durable but cheap clothing found a liking to a new clothing called the palaka (the Hawaiian term for “frock”).  The checkered, denim shirt which combines button-front shirts from the West and the Filipino “Barong Tagalog” were considered perfect for working in the field.

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An evolution of the palaka, emerging in the early 1900s with shorter sleeves and varying designs, would eventually become the basis for the early Hawaiian shirts.

Local Chinese and Japanese tailors would eventually improve on the palakas designs by the 1930s, using Asian motifs as designs in printed Japanese or Chinese fabric. Historians, however, remain divided on who originally came up with the concept.

Some believe the first shirt of its kind design was first made by Kōichirō Miyamoto using Japanese Kimono fabrics and sold first at the clothes shop his mother established in Hawaii.

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There are those who attribute its origins to University of Hawaii student Gordon Young, who in the 1920s, worked with his mother’s dressmaker to develop a “pre-aloha shirt,” also using fabric from Japan.

For many, it was Chinese clothier Ellery Chun, who is often credited with the modern shirt’s prominence as he trademarked the phrase “aloha shirt” in 1936.

“I got the idea to promote a local style of shirt,” Chun, who graduated from Yale with a degree in economics, told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1987.

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He returned to Hawaii to help tend to his family’s dry goods store in 1931 and arrived at the idea a few years later. The shirts, also made with the Japanese fabric, were displayed “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.”

Hawaiian shirts would soon be mass produced by various local retailers as demand rose. Sales continued to rise in the decades that followed.

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Extremely popular with beach-goers, the Aloha shirt also became a preferred civilian clothing of choice among off-duty servicemen.

The Hawaiian shirt became a symbol of a happy, more relaxed attitude in American pop culture a few decades later when celebrities such as Elvis, Shirley Temple and even President Nixon were seen donning the style in public.

Honolulu’s fashion industry’s successful promotional campaign in the 1960s called “Operation Liberation” ensured government employees start wearing the shirt in Hawaiian offices on Fridays. The practice, dubbed “Aloha Fridays” would eventually become what we know today as “Casual Fridays.”

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While the shirt has remained a favorite among a certain demographic of “uncles”, some companies have made several attempts to give the shirt a “comeback” in modern American fashion scene in recent years, albeit with some iterations of the originally flamboyant, strikingly colorful design.

Have you got a Hawaii shirt photo you’d like to share in the comment section? Flaunt it with the #Hawaiishirtchallenge

Feature Image via Wikimedia Commons/ Vera & Jean-Christophe (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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