Hawaiian shirts, or “aloha shirts” as they’re officially known, were never really made with “fashion” in mind. And yet, today, aloha shirts in all their wildly colorful, enthusiastically printed, wonderfully tacky, once-kitschy glory populate both the street-style scene and runways. Seeing as how their fellow sartorial offenders—dad sneakers, bucket hats, mom jeans to name a few—also emerged from the normcore-loving limelight, it makes sense. But unlike the others, the aloha shirt boasts a history that’s at once complicated and enlightening.
Well, complicated in the sense that no one can identify the exact origin of the first aloha shirt or its creator. One source believes the garment can be traced back to 1926 when a college student created a prototype with his mother’s dressmaker: a button-down collared shirt made out of yukata, the same cloth Japanese women use for work kimonos. It was reportedly an instant hit among his University of Hawaii friends and he brought the design over to the mainland later that year. Another reports that it began with a student enrolled at Madame Lester’s School of Ballroom Dancing in Honolulu, who showed up in a printed shirt in the late ‘20s.
Dolores Miyamoto, wife and partner of Hawaiian merchant Koichiro Miyamoto, went on the record to say it was Hollywood actor John Barrymore’s doing, who walked into their store, Musa-Shiya the Shirtmaker, and custom ordered a shirt crafted from kimono fabric. Surfriders Sportswear Manufacturing claims on selling its first Hawaiian shirt in 1932. Other small outlets like Ellery Chun, Linn’s, Yat Loy, and Musa-Shiya have all been called out for supplying aloha shirts to both locals and tourists.
As tourism grew, so did the demand for souvenirs, specifically ones with an “aloha” descriptor attached. In 1935, Musa-Shiya Shoten, Ltd was allegedly the first to advertise the shirt, taking out an ad that read: “Honolulu’s Noted Shirt Maker and Kimono Shop. ‘Aloha’ shirts—well tailored, beautiful designs and radiant colors. Ready-made or made to order…95 cents and up.” A year later, garment-maker Ellery Chun officially trademarked the term “aloha shirt” and it stuck.
And that brings us to the shirt’s role in pop culture. Nearly 30 years after it was trademarked, Elvis Presley pushed it into the mainstream consciousness when he donned a red floral version, complete with a lei and a ukulele in the 1961 film Blue Hawaii. Jimmy Buffet made the aloha shirt his signature onstage look as he crooned about island life in the ‘70s. Tom Selleck famously wore floral-printed styles in the 1980 TV series Magnum, P.I. And 21-year-old heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio gave the shirt a hit of sex appeal in Romeo + Juliet in 1996.
But the shirt’s “cool” factor more or less ended there. Maybe it was because the shirt soon became synonymous with cheesy tourists or unfashionable dads, or both (you know the uniform: a Hawaiian shirt with baggy cargo shorts, chunky sneakers, and a camera slung around the neck). Perhaps it was because the characters who wore the shirt on-screen gradually became less attractive, older, and well, dorkier. Either way, it wasn’t until designers turned their attention onto the tourist staple, making it over from a high-fashion POV, that the shirt found itself back in fashion’s good graces again.
Prada’s insanely buzzy Spring/Summer 2011 collection featured banana-print boxy-cut shirts that playfully clashed with graphic pleated skirts. Five years later, for the Fall/Winter 2016, Miuccia Prada revisited the shirt and reimagined it in moody tropical flowers that she hardened with leather dusters, corset belts, and lace-up suede boots. More recently, Alessandro Michele presented a coordinating Hawaii-themed set on the Gucci Spring/Summer 2018 runway and Richard Quinn offered a beaded rendition of the hibiscus flower print for Spring/Summer 2019.
But it’s the men’s collections that have seen an abundance of aloha shirts, from Saint Laurent’s grungy Kurt Cobain-inspired take to Dries Van Noten’s mixed-print variety for Spring/Summer 2016. For Kim Jones’ penultimate Louis Vuitton collection in 2017, he drew inspiration from a trip to Hawaii with literal riffs on touristy items, including aloha shirts, shell necklaces, and bucket hats. The designer further explored the tropical trend for the Dior Men Fall/Winter 2020 show with short sleeve button-downs boasting Shawn Stussy-designed prints that incorporated floral motifs alongside the Dior logo. Likewise, Pierpaolo Piccioli put a spin on the aloha shirt with jungle fantasy prints for Spring/Summer 2020 and matching bucket hats to boot.
And in light of the industry’s renewed interest in maximalism with an emphasis on happiness, color, and comfort (the latter being the result of athleisure and normcore), flipping once-hated items—especially ones that check off all the aforementioned boxes—on their head has never been more appealing. Though perhaps the aloha shirt’s resurgence can be credited to something as simple as the fact that we all just want wear a slice of paradise.
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createdAt:Wed, 30 May 2018 18:36:49 +0000
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