Wearing “Aloha” On Your Sleeve
The aloha shirt has come a long way over the years. What was once a colorful (if not gaudy) tourist memento has evolved into a prized art form combining fashion, style and an unabashed love for all things Hawaiian.
“It’s an upscale T-shirt,” said an executive at Tori Richard, a prominent aloha shirt manufacturer. An aloha shirt with thematic design, whether it be cars or surfing, is not much different than a T-shirt with that same kind of imagery, except that you can wear an aloha shirt at a nice restaurant or even at the office.” Added an executive at Kahala Sportswear, “An aloha shirt is a work of art. It’s a canvas that enables you to convey a feeling. It’s not abstract. It’s not without meaning. There’s a story behind every shirt.”
Ellery J. Chun is generally regarded as the creator of the first aloha shirt. The owner of the downtown Honolulu shop, King-Smith Clothiers, coined the term in 1936. His sister, Ethel, created different aloha shirt designs. “I was just trying to figure out a way to increase business in the store when I got the idea to promote a local style of shirt,” Chun told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in a 1987 interview. “Since there was no pre-printed Hawaiian fabric around, I took patterned Japanese yukata cloth and had a few dozen short-sleeve, square-bottomed shirts made up for me. I put the shirts 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.”
Ethel Chun’s original aloha shirt designs were donated to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Textile Collection in 1998.
Hollywood helped heighten the popularity of aloha shirts. In the 1953 classic From Here to Eternity, leading men Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, and Ernest Borgnine all sported Hawaiian-themed shirts.
Today, there are aloha shirts for every taste and budget. Different manufacturers have even secured licensing agreements to include the likenesses of some of the world’s top pop culture icons, from the NFL and Harley-Davidson to Walt Disney and Major League Baseball.
One thing hasn’t changed about aloha shirts: They still make fabulous mementos of a Hawaiian vacation, tangible reminders of Hawaii’s famous aloha spirit. Explained a representative from Hilo Hattie, Hawaii’s largest manufacturer of aloha apparel, “Aloha shirts have staying power because people enjoy them and they’re fun to wear.”