mainland Hawaii has long been seen as a place where Americans can relax. Hawaiian music was all the rage during World War I, as the United States was ready to enter the battle. Hawaiian records outsold all other genres in 1916, and ukuleles were so common in college dorms and upper-crust nightclubs that the New York Tribune published a full-page image of a fictitious “Ukulele Square, the Hawaiian Quarter of New York.” During the Great Depression, Americans turned their gaze to Hawaii once more, adopting another aspect of Hawaiian culture: the aloha shirt.
The Hawaiian Shirt’s Background
The aloha shirt first developed in Hawaii in the 1920s or 1930s, when local Japanese women adapted kimono cloth for use in men’s shirting, though its precise beginnings are lost to history. When the shirts were introduced to the mainland in the mid-1930s, they became more popular among tourists in Hawaii. Many men were out of work and many more were battling to keep their breadwinner status in America at the time. Hyper-manliness became fashionable as a result—popularity bodybuilding’s increased, and Superman debuted. Men embracing a clothing with such feminine charm may seem counterintuitive. The Los Angeles Times taunted in 1936, “You’d better acquire two or three since it’s a sure guarantee your daughter, sister, wife, or even mother will want this bright-colored garment the moment she sees it.” Men continued to buy despite this. Aloha shirts brought in more than $11 million per year (in today’s money) by 1940.
Rich, prominent men wore it, which was one of the reasons males adopted a clothing that belonged in their sisters’ closets. In the 1930s, wealthy visitors to Hawaii were the norm, and aloha shirts were soon being sold by celebrities who aspired to be like them.
Three-time Olympic swimmer and surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku, as well as singer Bing Crosby, were among the celebrities who lent their names to specific products. According to Dale Hope, a historian and author of The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands, these endorsements had a “great impact” on individuals buying the shirts. It didn’t matter if it was feminine if you could dress like a man who hadn’t been affected by the Depression: you appeared to be a man who didn’t have to worry about his manly credentials.
When the shirt arrived in stores in the Lower 48, any day laborer could get what had previously been an expensive excursion for only a dollar. With its representations of hula dancers and luaus—“symbol[s] of the comfortable, gay, and picturesque,” as one journalist described it in 1939—a man wearing an aloha shirt might easily pass for a carefree swell.
With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the idyllic image of Hawaii was shattered, and aloha shirt producers, like others in the textile business, shifted their focus to supporting the war effort. When production began, the popular Japanese-influenced designs—featuring cherry blossoms and shrines—were temporarily replaced by designs that celebrated Hawaii’s culture. The distinctive attire became more fashionable than ever as service members returned from the Pacific.
The shirt had truly become ubiquitous by the 1960s. Aloha Fridays were a staple of a certain type of company, and everyone seemed to have an aloha shirt, from Elvis to the decidedly unhip Richard Nixon. It eventually devolved into goofy suburban-dad garb, probably unavoidably. Yet, in only the last five years, fashion journals have heralded a revival, and high-end designers like Gucci are elevating the aloha shirt to new heights with motifs that harken back to the garment’s early days in Japan. Meanwhile, some of Hawaii’s old-school shirtmakers are still in business.
Kahala, which was one of the first manufacturers to produce aloha shirts in 1936, has been rummaging through its archives to resurrect designs from the 1930s, including ones popularized by Duke Kahanamoku. “People want to inject some brightness, color, and vitality into their lives,” says Kahala’s general manager, Jason Morgan. “I believe it is more important than ever before. I believe it’s really powerful if an aloha shirt can make someone’s day better.”