Hawaiian Shirt History: Where the Aloha Shirt Began

This post was last updated on: Friday, November 1, 2019

For decades the aloha shirt has evoked the feeling of a tropical Hawaiian vacation. Like so many aspects of Hawaiian culture, the aloha shirt is rooted in the islands’ rich traditions.

What started as a laborers’ uniform transformed into a global icon that instantly brings sandy beaches and crystal waters to mind. They’re even Hawaii’s top textile export these days.

Tropical vacations aside, the aloha shirt is so much more than the stereotypical uniform for beach-bound tourists. But where did this iconic shirt come from in the first place?

Hawaiian shirt history (credit: Tori Richard) - family of 4 enjoing a meal while wearing aloha attire

Grab your lei and let’s take a look into the origins of this Polynesian-inspired classic.

Palaka

Palaka refers to the cloth design worn by Hawaiian dock and plantation workers. Over time it became a symbol for oppressed workers during the 20th century.

Palaka was seen as a symbol of protection because of the way it guarded workers against the sun, wind, and dust during their days working the docks and plantations. Over time, it made its way into mainstream fashion. Today, palaka inspired shirts protect both Hawaiian locals and tourists from the sun.

So, next time you put on an aloha shirt, be aware that it’s rooted in an essential part of Hawaiian history. It’s truly a piece of Hawaiian culture, not just an outfit for you to wear while you sip mai tais on the beach.

Aloha Week

Before you ask: no, the Aloha Festivals celebration is nothing like Bonnaroo or Coachella, so you can leave those expectations at the door. Started initially as Aloha Week in 1946, the Aloha Festivals celebrates Hawaii’s unique culture of dance, music, and traditions. Over 100,000 people on average attend it.

The annual parade features musicians, dancers, and other performers all decked out in Hawaiian floral shirts. The festival includes (you guessed it) plenty of aloha shirts on all kinds of participants. To read more about the Aloha Festivals and Floral Parade, take a look here.

Naturally, the Aloha Festivals do a lot to promote the cultural image of Hawaii. As such, aloha shirts and the unique designs used on them can be seen almost everywhere. It’s a place where you can rock your aloha shirt without any fear of standing out.

Aloha Friday

Sunshine and warm weather are fantastic for vacation, but can you imagine working in that heat? That’s precisely the question that was posed by the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce in 1946. They wanted to wear more comfortable, lighter attire rather than the traditional suit and tie.

They slowly got the change that they wanted; sport shirts were allowed during warm months, and aloha shirts were even allowed during Aloha Week in the fall. In the 1960s, the Hawaiian Fashion Guild also went so far as to give one to every member of the Hawaiian Senate and House of Representatives.

A shameless promotional tactic? Maybe, but it was useful for helping the workplace dress codes loosen up. After a time, Aloha Friday emerged, allowing business people to wear aloha shirts on the last day of the week.

Once Aloha Friday caught on, famous Hawaiian singers Kimo Kahoano and Paul Natto came out with their hit song, It’s Aloha Friday, No Work ’til Monday. This TGIF anthem is still sung today in anticipation of the weekend. How’s that for an end to your week?

Californians eventually noticed what was happening, and they wanted in on the action. Aloha Friday made its way to the mainland and eventually became what is known today as Casual Friday.

WWII

Following World War II, lots of Americans returned home from Asia and the Pacific with Hawaiian-print shirts in tow. These gained popularity in the fashion world over the years, and they slowly became the fashion symbol that we know today.

The tropical design of aloha print shirts started to become huge once Hawaii became a state in 1959. With faster airplanes and a new destination to explore, American tourists began flocking to Hawaii.

What was once a workers’ uniform now started to bud into a fashion icon. Since so many tourists wanted to buy the shirts as souvenirs, aloha print shirt makers and dressmakers soon began to use more creative designs and high-quality materials.

Celebrity Involvement

Since leaving its permanent mark on the fashion world, the aloha shirt has been worn by a few iconic celebrities over the years. While the shirt certainly doesn’t need to gain any more fame, we continue to be reminded that it’s here to stay. From actors to musicians, there’s no escaping this Hawaiian design.

Jimmy Buffett

Even if you aren’t a Jimmy Buffet fan, “Cheeseburger In Paradise” probably starts playing in your head upon hearing his name. His music is synonymous with seaside vacations, drinking on the beach, and enjoying life. It’s no surprise that, as an artist with a beach bum persona, his go-to wardrobe choice is the aloha shirt.

As Buffet’s music gained fame, so did the image of the aloha shirt. Since the 1960s, Buffet has been making music and showcasing the folky sounds of the South. He still tours today, and you can expect him to be decked out in Hawaiian print at any given concert.

Elvis Presley

After Hawaii officially received its statehood in 1959, Elvis had colossal success starring in the 1961 film, Blue Hawaii. Presley’s fame sparked the America’s fascination with Hawaiian culture. Among other Hawaiian trends (like playing ukulele or surfing), the aloha shirt rode the wave of Elvis’ fame.

As if the movie wasn’t enough, Elvis also gave his famous “Aloha From Hawaii” concert from Honolulu International Center in the 1970s. The concert was broadcast live via satellite and was a huge success.

Tom Selleck

While you might not equate the floral designs of the aloha shirt to masculinity and toughness, Tom Selleck changed the game. As the face behind the title character of Magnum P.I., Selleck is single handedly responsible for a significant 1980s revival of the aloha shirt.

The specific design that he wore is among the most popular patterns for aloha shirts. It’s even made its way into the Smithsonian’s American History Collection as a national cultural icon. You can get your hands on a replica model today, but don’t go trying to fight any crime once you do.

Leonardo DiCaprio

A modern twist on an old classic, Romeo + Juliet (1996) starred a young Leonardo DiCaprio sporting—you guessed it—an aloha shirt. Although you may not have imagined Romeo wearing a floral design while you read Shakespeare, the film took a lot of creative liberties when bringing this classic to life.

Bruno Mars

In pop culture today, R&B/pop crossover artist Bruno Mars has made a habit of wearing aloha shirts. Given the light hearted, smooth style of his singing and lyrics, this comes as no surprise.

People Also Ask

Do Hawaiian People Wear Hawaiian Shirts?

Yes! Aloha wear is actually a very popular and prominent type of business and “formal” attire in Hawaii. Stroll through Downtown Honolulu, step into any local bank, or attend a Hawaiian wedding/first baby birthday party, and you’ll be sure to see more than a few people sporting a Hawaiian shirt.

What are Hawaiian Shirts Made Out Of?

Well, they first used to be made out of silk and cotton in the 1930s and 1940s, but today, they are made out of almost any modern fabric, from rayon to linen.

Are Hawaiian Shirts Supposed to be Big?

Historically, aloha shirts are supposed to have a very relaxed fit, and traditionally, they are worn untucked which perhaps has given them the overall look of being too large.

However, modern fit cuts and styles, particularly from reyn spooner and Tori Richard have also become very popular in recent years.

What is the Best Hawaiian Shirt?

The one that fits, of course! All kidding aside, try looking at Tori Richard or reyn spooner. These two companies have been in the aloha shirt business for well over 60 years each, and they are both staples in Hawaii when it comes to aloha wear.

Our Final Thoughts on the Hawaiian Shirt History

Today you can find Hawaiian shirts of many different designs and quality levels on the market. Although they’ve taken on a whole new meaning in the public eye, they’re still rooted in Hawaii’s culture and tradition.

The bottom line is, whether you’re heading to Waikiki for a week of surfing or you want to mix up your Casual Friday look, the aloha shirt is great for all occasions. Put one on, spread the excellent island vibes, and take pride in wearing an essential piece of Hawaiian history.