It’s time we reexamine the Hawaiian shirt. With vibrant patterns, a relaxed cut, and short sleeves, the Hawaiian shirt (also known as the “aloha shirt”) has been, in many ways, the antithesis of formalwear and often the butt of sartorial jokes. While this may be the case, on further inspection, the Hawaiian shirt has a rich history that’s deeply rooted in the multiculturalism of Hawaii.
A Brief History of the Hawaiian Shirt
The Hawaiian shirt has become so embedded in the cultural imagination of Hawaii that it’s hard to believe this garment isn’t even 100 years old. The origins of the aloha shirt can be traced back to the 1920s and ’30s when Japanese women on the island created men’s shirts out of breathable, lightweight kimono fabric, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Celebrities donned the colorful shirts during the Great Depression, which largely put the style on the radar for people in the continental United States who had never been to the islands. At the same time, tourism started to pick up, providing a branding opportunity for business-minded individuals. As one history told through old newspaper reports details, Honolulu-based tailor, Musa-Shiya Shoten, ran the first ad for the Hawaiian shirt targeting tourists in a local newspaper. Contemporaneously, Ellery Chun, who was working for a local tailor called King-Smith Clothiers, got inspiration from Filipino youths in brightly colored shirts and the Japanese immigrant population in their intricate textiles to produce a line of ready-to-wear garments at King-Smith. By 1937, he had trademarked “Aloha Shirt”.
This one-two punch of a national gaze on island life, while seeing an influx of immigration and inspiration, led to the garment that is almost as synonymous with Hawaii as leies, luas, and the hula.
After World War II during the Hawaii tourism surge of the 1950s and ’60s, Hawaiian shirts were all the rage. Yet over time, as with many trends, the style fell out of fashion and became kitschy. But there’s been a resurgence of sorts over the past decade or so.
Where to Buy an Authentic Hawaiian Shirt
Because of mass production and large retailers, the market for an authentic Hawaiian shirt has shrunk over the years. Walk into any department store and you’ll probably find a rack of Hawaiian-inspired shirts, but for the real deal, you may have to look a little harder.
The first option, of course, is to take a trip to the islands. There are many local shops that carry selections of aloha shirts. While this may not be a feasible option, I’ve done crazier things for clothes in my day. Plus, who could deny the appeal of a Hawaiian vacation right now?
The second option is thrifting. While you can still find a wide variety of Hawaiian shirts made from silk and cotton, a good portion of the market has been inundated with mass-produced synthetic blends and rayon. To combat this, find a good thrift store. Many higher quality shops carry a selection of Hawaiian shirts (more specifically on the West coast, I’ve found) and there are real-deal finds when it comes to pure silk. While it may cost you just as much as buying new, there’s the added fun of the thrill of the hunt.
And, of course, there’s the third and best option: buying online and supporting local Hawaiian small businesses. These six companies carry authentic aloha shirts made in Hawaii. So grab a Mai Tai and get your credit card ready.
Kahala gets its spot on the top of this list thanks to its claim as the original Hawaiian shirt since 1936. With a selection of over 50 pattern options (many of which look toward heritage prints from the company archives), one gets the feeling of authenticity in shirts that have modern cuts and designs. At around $100, these garments are a little on the pricier side, but are nonetheless the sort of shirt you’ll find a reason to throw on whether you’re on vacation or just heading to the bar.
Hilo Hattie is one of those tourist shops that does it right. The brand isn’t out to cater to holiday-makers, but instead celebrates its heritage with anyone who passes by the shop or browses the variety of Hawaiian garments and gifts on the site. The brand’s Hawaiian shirt selection is varied with an emphasis on versatility. Options include shirts with made with 100 percent cotton and coconut shell buttons in various cuts and fits. There are big, bold patterns alongside more subtle options with wide color blocking, making this a great choice (and great price point with options as low as $50) for first time shoppers.
Lavahut has an impressive array of island offerings, from sandals to jewelry to hula skirts. Most impressive, for me at least, is the selection of understated aloha shirts made in Honolulu that are perfect for any occasion–including weddings. Most notable about Lavahut is the emphasis on an immersive experience, giving you options for every family member and any way you want to wear your Aloha shirt.
Avanti Hawaiian Shirts
Avanti has taken the template of the classic aloha shirt and modernized it for today’s wearer. The two cuts (traditional and modern) allow you to wear this classic design without worrying about the boxy feel if you’d rather have something more fitted. Not only that, but Avanti has silk options and even performance wear designs, so you can play in the sand and relax by the pool and not worry too much about sweating through.
Kamehameha Garment Co.
While Kamehameha Garment Co. has a smaller selection than the others on this list, the designs feel totally original and very much in tune with the cosmopolitan heritage of Hawaii’s golden days of tourism. With bold patterns and intricate detailing, the six design patterns each have a unique perspective of island life that’s classic, retro, and ideal for anyone looking to branch out.