Hawaiian shirts have a long history in the 50th State. There have been numerous stories, fictions, as well as the odd half-truths perpetuated about the origins of the Hawaiian Shirt, more popularly known as the Aloha Shirt in Hawaii. One such story goes like this…
Prior to the establishment of the Hawaiian Shirt in the fashion annals, Honolulu was a rather conservative, somewhat drab place from a fashion standpoint. In the 1920s and 1930s immigrants from numerous countries began setting roots in Hawaii, seeking prosperity and a new life in what was then a Plantation town. Bright Kimono cloth came from Japan, the relaxed and cool-wearing Barong Tagalog came from the Phillippines, bright formal colored garments and silk came from China, the traditional collared shirt style came from the USA, and native Hawaiians provided their own traditional geometric block patterns, first seen on the Kapa Malo (loin cloth) and Kapa Pa'u (similar to a sarong).
The probable precursor to the modern Hawaiian Shirt was the Palaka Shirt and the Kimono-cloth shirt. The Palaka is a short sleeved shirt with bright geometric line patterns that were widely worn by plantation workers. It has a plaid design, and resembles a checkerboard. Also popular during that time were short-sleeved shirts sewn by Japanese housekeepers and made out of leftover Kimono cloth, designed for Japanese boys and men.
Many attribute the invention of the Aloha Shirt to Ellery Chun, owner of a Dry Goods store in Honolulu who sold the tropical print fashions in the 1930s. However what we now know is that the "Hawaiian Shirt" had already been in circulation for numerous years, although Mr. Chun had a major role in the Hawaiian Shirt's proliferation. Ellery Chun was born in Hawaii in 1909. He graduated from Yale University with a degree in Economics in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression and then returned to Hawaii to take over his Father's dry goods store in Downtown Honolulu. In an attempt to build business during the Depression, Chun expanded the scope of the store to appeal to a wider audience beyond the Chinese community it primarily served. He and his sister Ethel Chun Lum, began selling bright print short sleeve shirts made out of the leftover material from Japanese Kimonos. He also renamed the store King-Smith Clothiers. Some of the original Hawaiian prints sold by Chun included designs with Palm Trees, Hula Girls, and Pineapples. One of his tailors would make about 3 or 4 dozen at a time.
At the same time a business named "Musa-Shiya the Shirtmaker" was also making shirts from Japanese Kimono fabric. Musa-Shiya the Shirt Maker eventually evolved into "Musashiya", a fabric store that is still in business today at Honolulu's Ala Moana Shopping Center. The business advertised its "Aloha" shirts with a starting price of 95 cents per shirt!
Local Hawaii residents, and Waikiki beachboys and surfers quickly noticed the shirts and began buying them in ever-increasing numbers. Over time, tourists, Hollywood movie stars, and other rich and famous visitors to Hawaii also began noticing the bright, casual, easy to wear styles, and began bringing styles home to the U.S. mainland. After his success with the shirts in the early 1930's, Mr. Chun, trademarked the term "Aloha Shirt" in 1936. He continued selling his Aloha Shirts, and widely expanded his line, with his sister Ethel designing the fabrics and shirt styles. It was during this period that Ethel Chun Lum began creating the bright tropical fabric patterns that were based more on Hawaiian designs rather than Asian styles. Ellery Chun passed away on May 16, 2000 in Honolulu at the age of 91. Although he may not have invented the garment, he certainly popularized it, helped establish a staple Hawaiian industry, and helped assure the Hawaiian Shirt an enduring place in fashion history.
By the 1950's, the Hawaiian Shirt had blazed into prominence. In August 1959 Hawaii became the 50th State of the U.S.A., bringing the new “Aloha State” even more attention, and most significantly, even more tourists! The cover of Life Magazine, dated December 10, 1951, featured a beaming President Harry Truman wearing a Hawaiian shirt for a story entitled “The President of the United States - Evolution of a Wardrobe.”
Hawaiian shirts also began receiving high exposure in Hollywood movies, and a succession of popular Hawaii-based TV-Series through the late 1950's, 1960's, 1970's and 1980's.
Today the Hawaiian shirt remains a firm favourite with fans of Tiki Lifestyle and should be worn loud and proud.