A Brief History of the Hawaiian Shirt

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To celebrate the kitschest of the kitsch we took a look back at one of our favourite vintage pieces, its tropical origins and place in pop culture. Delve into a brief history of the Hawaiian shirt and find out how you can style it.

Words by Danielle Morgan

The Origins of the Hawaiian Shirt

Otherwise known as the 'Aloha Shirt', as legend would have it, the first contemporary Hawaiian shirts were made by Musa Shiya, a Japanese tailor living in Honolulu. Throughout the 1920s and '30s he crafted made to order silk shirts using traditional bright Japanese fabrics combined with Western style tailoring. Shiya's wife Dolores Miyamoto helped produce the shirts, and remembers receiving orders from Shirley Temple.

There is much controversy surrounding the inception of the shirt; whilst some laud Shiya for his creations others grant University of Hawaii student Gordon Young with the concept and his mother for the creation.

Whichever story you believe, it is obvious that the shirts are strongly influenced by traditional Japanese fabrics like those used for Kimonos. The evolution of the Hawaiian shirt came when designers and artists began experimenting with the prints that featured on them; substituting the Japanese influences for those a little closer to home. Pine trees were replaced with coconut trees, thatched huts with surfer scenes, Oriental bamboo and tigers with fish, flowers and ukulele's; symbolic objects native to the Islands.

Alfred Shaheen was another big name on the island; during the '50s his was the biggest textile print and manufacture company in Hawaii. 'Shaheen's of Honolulu' ready to wear Aloha shirts for men and sarong dresses for women were the first of their kind in terms large scale commercial production, producing his own silk screen fabrics inspired by Hawaii and the South Pacific to use for his own creations. Companies like Shaheen's saw a definitive turn in the history of Hawaiian shirts, from novelty items to large scale commercial trading.

Post War Hawaiian Shirts

Following WWII, regulations surrounding business attire relaxed; post World War II was a very different place to 'pre', and whilst contemporary living was constantly being revised and changed, so too were the ways people dressed. A causal stance was taken to business dress in Hawaii, where the sweltering climates made traditional suit and tie combinations impractical.

In 1946, the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce pumped $10,000 into a study that would design and manufacture Hawaiian shirts suitable for business dress. The birth of business-casual, perhaps? The shirt that had begun as a tourist money maker was readily adopted by locals for its lightweight practicality and fun loving design.

The Golden Age of the Hawaiian Shirt

During the period between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Aloha shirt experienced a surge of popularity amongst holiday makers.

'Aloha Shirt' and 'Aloha Sportswear' were the first registered trademarks of the Hawaiian shirt in 1936 and 1937 respectively. By this time, the shirts were mass produced for commercial markets. Donned 'postcards you could wear' the romanticism and allure of Island life depicted in the ornate illustrations that adorned the shirts were attractive to tourists who wanted an escape whilst on holiday and a reminder of those memories when they returned.

The shirts produced during this period are held in such high regard due to the quality of the fabrics, design and tailoring of each item. Silks from Japan, or designed on the island were painted and stitched by hand and tailored to fit the individual wearer. After this period, the shirts were mass produced in polyester or rayon; materials that compromised on the quality of the garment to meet demand.

The Hawaiian Shirt in Popular Culture

In recent years, the Hawaiian shirt has been resigned to the sin bin; a gaudy garish horror-show that only your dad would be seen wearing. Well, that might be the case, but I say different and so do some of your favourite films and pop culture influences. Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Leonardo DiCaprio have all sported the controversial shirt. You may be feeling dubious about the Aloha shirt, but they definitely weren't.

With the introduction of Hawaiian shirts into mainstream American culture in films such as Blue Hawaii and From Here to Eternity, the Aloha shirt made the transition from the Pacific to the homeland. Viewed more as a novelty item as opposed to a serious article, American's sought out the Hawaiian shirt because of, and not in spite of, its tropical connotations.

As an extension of the Aloha shirt, Hawaiian Sarong dresses became available during the late 1940s and into the '50s as an alternative for women. These were made from the same hand painted silks, with a cinched, gathered waist, halter neck and pencil skirt features. Otherwise known as 'Tiki Dresses', these too were popular on the island until they made a transition into mainstream fashion following their appearance in similar feature films.

The Hawaiian shirt has since earnt a reputation as a kitsch garment since being featured in films such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Romeo + Juliet; the cult status of these films goes hand in hand with that of the Aloha shirt.

How to Wear the Hawaiian Shirt

If you though the Hawaiian shirt was a tired tacky thing of the past, then think again. If you're a vintage junkie, you couldn't find a piece more rooted in its vintage ancestry. The style of the Hawaiian shirt has pretty much remained true to form since it appeared on the market during the 1920s, and whilst it's great to stay authentic to the original, you can take inspiration from the Aloha shirt and put your own individual twist on the classic.

Alien (1979)

SHOP 70s Military Deck Jacket | Green Hawaiian Shirt | Levi's 505 Jeans

Ever found yourself sat watching Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi cult classic Alien and thought to yourself 'you know what, Brett there has really got that whole Hawaiian shirt/trucker hat look down to a tee'? No? Perhaps not, but there's a lot to be said about the cult status of the Hawaiian shirt and taking a utilitarian approach to the kitsch classic isn't the worst idea. Pairing your Hawaiian shirt with a military jacket and faded jeans tones down the gaudiness of it all and can make for a unique and inspired twist on an old classic.

Scarface (1983)

SHOP Red Hawaiian Shirt | Levi's Beige 511 Jeans

It doesn't get better than Al Pacino in Scarface and here her is showing us that even the worlds biggest baddest gangsters can still pull off a Hawaiian shirt. Pair with simple beige trousers like Al (minus the gory gruesome blood stains) for a nod to... well, we're not entirely sure but if it's good enough for Al.