History of the Hawaiian Shirt

Different Eras and the Evolution of the Modern Aloha Shirt

The Hawaiian shirt (more commonly referred to as an "Aloha shirt" in Hawaii) is an international symbol of Hawaii recognized around the world. It has evolved over the decades from its humble beginnings in the 1930's just like other fashion trends. There are several types of Hawaiian shirts as well as other Hawaiian clothing. Here are some interesting facts you might not know about the Hawaiian shirt.

Early Hawaiian Wear

Before the arrival of woven fabrics from China, Japan and the West, native Hawaiians created their simple clothing from plants and trees. Men wore a malo, or loincloth, made of tapa cloth, which was fabricated from the inner bark of wauke trees. Hawaiian women wore a skirt called a pa`u, which looked like a hula skirt.

A Tapa for All Occasions

It was tough, durable and versatile. It was great for clothing and made an excellent floor covering. And it was a joy to decorate. Throughout Polynesia, tapa cloth was the artist's canvas and people hand-painted their tapa creations with beautiful colors and exquisite designs. The brilliant, colored patterns found on today's Hawaiian shirts and dresses find their roots in these wonderful Polynesian tapa prints.

The Ever Popular Palaka Shirt

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Hawaiian Islands emerged as a powerful plantation economy that produced sugar, pineapple and coffee for export around the world. Plantation workers needed a rugged shirt that was suitable for hard labor in the fields. Within a generation, the checkered blue and white denim palaka became the standard work shirt of Hawaii. By the early 1930s the palaka Hawaiian shirts and blue denim trousers called sailor-mokus had almost become the official national costume of Hawaii both on and off the plantation.

From Kimono to Ono

In the early days shirts were tailored by hand, either in the home or at custom tailor shops that had sprung up in plantation towns and throughout Honolulu. Dry goods stores supplied the fabrics: printed silk from Japan, raw silk, batik, rayon from the U.S. mainland and cotton cloth made for kimonos and yukatas. Short- and long-sleeved shirts and women's dresses were based on Asian garment designs and made from pre-printed fabrics from China and Japan. These colorful shirts and dresses were the direct ancestors of modern aloha wear. Here in the islands we say "ono" to mean deliciously cool.

First Real Hawaiian Designs

It wasn't until the mid-1930s that Hawaiian clothing manufacturers decided to produce cloth that was uniquely Hawaiian in design. Watumull's East India Store led the way by commissioning artist Elsie Das to create fifteen floral designs. Her hand-painted designs were sent to Japan where they were printed by hand onto raw silk.

Satin Mistakes and Hollywood Dreams

According to Hawaiian fabric designer Elsie Das, a Japanese manufacturer once printed a set of her floral designs on heavy satin by mistake. "These started a vogue in Hollywood. Ginger Rogers, Janet Gaynor and other stars bought bolts of the stuff and had it made into 'seductive gowns.' The result was an epidemic of Hawaiian designs, with hibiscus and ginger breaking out on table cloths, napkins and scarves all over the country." "Elsie Das, Artist Designer," an article by William Davenport in Paradise of the Pacific, p 9, 1963.

The "First" Aloha Shirt

The term "aloha shirt" may have started as street slang in the early 1930s to describe the growing number of shirts featuring Oriental and Hawaiian designs that were being produced by Honolulu tailors. Musa-Shiya, the Shirtmaker first advertised the "aloha shirt" in the Honolulu Advertiser on June 28, 1935: "Honolulu's Noted Shirt Maker and Kimono Shop. 'Aloha' shirts - well tailored, beautiful designs and radiant colors. Ready-made or made to order 95 cents up." By another account, 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." In fact Mr. Chun officially registered a trademark for his Aloha sportswear on July 15, 1936.

Hawaiian Shirts in Hollywood

Movie stars, crooners and politicians did a fine job of promoting Hawaiian clothing. Montgomery Cliff Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine and Frank Sinatra all wore beautiful Hawaiian shirts in the movie From Here to Eternity. Ginger Rogers wore seductive satin gowns of Hawaiian designs while Bing Crosby sported his unique combination of Hawaiian shirt and porkpie hat. And Betty Grable did a promo pin-up shot wearing a gorgeous Hawaiian-style swimsuit in the 1940s. In the 1980s, Tom Selleck often wore the signature "Magnum PI" Hawaiian shirt, which is now in the Smithsonian Institute.

Border Hawaiian Shirts

By modern standards, border Hawaiian shirts were a luxury because so much fabric was wasted in making them. These shirts featured wonderful designs that were so well thought-out that sleeves, sides and hems were identical. Pockets sometimes matched the shirt pattern perfectly. And some designs never repeated themselves on the same shirt. Border Hawaiian shirts tended to be longer to show off the fabric images (you never, EVER tuck in a border shirt). The same tailoring approach was used to create beautiful sun dresses. The border shirt is very similar to the Engineered print Hawaiian shirt. The only difference is that the engineered shirts' image are even wider than the border shirt, often stretching from seam to seam.

Muumuus and Tea-timers

The Hawaiian muumuu started out as a loose-fitting dress designed for women of all sizes. It was the result of missionaries who sought to cover the bodies of Hawaiian women, who traditionally wore nothing more than a skirt. As the muumuu morphed and mated with traditional Asian designs, a unique series of women's garments emerged. For informal entertaining, the pake muu featured long, wing-like sleeves based on a Chinese design. The popular tea-timer was a tight-fitting, tailored, sleeveless top with a short mandarin collar. The holomu was a fitted garment for more formal evening wear while the holoku was a full-length dress for formal affairs. Over the years, women's Hawaiian clothing has tended to feature floral designs: ginger blossoms, plumeria, hibiscus, orchids and birds-of-paradise.

Casual Day Finds Its Roots in Honolulu

In 1947 the Honolulu Board of Supervisors passed a resolution whereby City & County employees were allowed - actually, they were encouraged - to wear Hawaiian shirts from June 1 to October 31 each year to beat the summer heat. This single act by a local government has had a powerful influence on businesses and civil servant departments around the world, especially where summers are unbearably hot. Today, many corners of the globe adopt more casual clothing styles for hot weather.

Aloha Friday

In Hawaii every Friday is Aloha Friday. It's the day when you wear your favorite aloha dress or aloha shirt with pride. On each and every Friday, downtown Honolulu is a sea of aloha wear, especially at lunch time when you can usually catch a free concert in the plaza at the corner of King and Bishop streets. Hawaii's aloha spirit can be found in many business offices. Companies that offer a "casual" day on Fridays need only look to the Aloha State for the source of this wonderful tradition.

Aloha Week

The first annual Aloha Week festival was held in 1947. By 1948's celebration, the local residents were enthusiastically wearing Hawaiian shirts and dresses to help promote local products. And today, after more than 50 years, Aloha Week is still going strong today. It's a great excuse to dress up in your favorite aloha wear, enjoy "ono Hawaiian kine grinds" (local cuisine), and immerse yourself in the music and arts of the islands.


Among several luxury cruise ship companies that promoted travel to exotic Hawaii, the Matson Line commissioned artists to create enchanting Hawaiian images for use as menu covers. Some of these distinctive images were used for fabric designs on Hawaiian shirts and dresses.

Made in Hawaii

In the 1950s manufacturers began adding the magical phrase "Made in Hawaii" to their garment labels. (the idea allegedly came from a trade commissioner from Los Angeles during a visit to Hawaii in 1950). This new label increased the value and desirability of authentic Hawaiian shirts and dresses on the mainland and across the world. "Made in Hawaii" allowed true aloha wear to stand out in a market that was being flooded by cheap imitations and mail order garments.