The History of the Hawaiian Shirt

by Scott Murakami November 16, 2015

The History of the Hawaiian Shirt

The Hawaiian shirt, more commonly known as the "Aloha shirt" in Hawaii, is a symbol of Hawaii that is recognized around the world. To give you a better understanding of history of the Hawaiian shirt, we'll take you back in time. 

Ancient Hawaiians used to create a cloth called tapa from the bark of the wauke tree pounded into a flat paper-like sheet and colored with natural dyes from various plants. These were used to make loincloths called malo for men, and skirts called pa’u for women. Tapa cloth can be viewed as the ancient predecessor to the modern Hawaiian shirt.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Hawaii developed its economy around sugar, pineapple. Plantation workers from Asia and Europe needed a rugged shirt that was suitable for hard labor in the fields. A checkered denim material originally from Scottland was modified to a simple blue and white pattern and came to be called palaka. Because palaka was strong enough to protect workers from getting poked by the sharp parts of the pineapple plants, palaka shirts quikcly became the standard work attire for plantation workers. In fact, by the 1930s the palaka shirt and blue denim trousers had become something of a national costume of Hawaii, both on and off the plantation.

At this time, Honolulu tailors were also making shirts and dresses from colorful silk, rayon, and cotton fabrics from Japan, China, and the US Mainland. By the 1930s, Hawaiian clothing manufacturers decided to produce their own unique Hawaiian designs featuring various tropical floral designs. By some accounts, an advertising salesperson from the Honolulu Advertiser and Ellery Chun, the owner of the King-Smith dry goods store, first coined the term "aloha shirt." And thus the modern Aloha shirt was born. 

Hawaiian shirts have grown in popularity over the decades. Celebrities like Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis sported Hawaiian shirts in movies. Who can forget the polyester craze of the 70s? Characters in the TV shows Hawaii 5-0 and Magnum PI wore aloha shirts all the time. In fact, Tom Sellek’s signature Magnum PI shirt is now in the Smithsonian Institute.

Today, aloha attire is standard work attire for almost everyone in the Hawaii’s visitor industry and even for many professional office workers. Beyond that, the Hawaiian shirt has come to symbolize Hawaii, tropical vacations, and in a broader sense, a casual care-free lifestyle. They are really a reflection of a happy, fun, and relaxed state of mind. So next time you put on your favorite aloha shirt, we hope you appreciate the long history and evolution of this wearable icon of Hawaii.




Scott Murakami
Scott Murakami

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