Aloha Friday: History of the Hawaiian Shirt

Best known as the “Hawaiian Shirt”, this now globally popular fashion trend indeed originates in America’s 50th state but, to the people of Hawaii, it’s called an “Aloha Shirt”, and it has a history as colorful as the prints themselves.

May 12, 2017
The exact origins of the Aloha shirt aren’t exactly clear. The earliest such shirts, made from cotton yukata normally reserved for Japanese kimonos, are rumored to have been created for Gordon Young and his classmates at the University of Hawaii in the early 1920s. In the 1930s, Honolulu tailor Musa-Shiya Shoten is said to have made shirts from Japanese fabrics for actors Shirley Temple and John Barrymore. Around the same time, Ellery Chun made a colorful three-button pullover out of leftover kimono fabric at his shop, King-Smith Clothiers and Dry Goods. Chun trademarked the “Aloha Shirt” name and quickly found a market for the items with tourists, surfers, and locals alike. Designer labels, including the still-operating Kahala brand, quickly followed.
Alfred Shaheen

The Aloha shirt trend expanded westward as World War II soldiers returned to the mainland from bases in Hawaii and as air travel to the islands brought increasing numbers of visitors to Hawaii from the continental US. As mass-market shirts were churned out for tourists, a homegrown high-fashion line was introduced by Alfred Shaheen, one of whose shirts was worn by Elvis Presley on the cover of the soundtrack for the film Blue Hawaii in 1961. The following year, the Hawaii Senate passed a resolution recommending the Aloha shirt be worn by legislators throughout the summer, beginning on Lei Day (May 1).

Not content to allow the fashion trend to be restricted to surfers, tourists, and government officials, the Hawaii Fashion Guild launched “Aloha Friday” in 1966 to promote wearing Aloha shirts in lieu of formal attire at all places of business. By 1970, thanks in part to its adoption by the president of Bank of Hawaii, Aloha shirts became acceptable as official business wear in Hawaii on any day of the week. 

Meanwhile in Thailand, the tradition of wearing “Thaiwaiian” shirts likely dates back to early Lanna tradition, when the custom was for family members to pay respect to their elders by presenting them with mohom shirts made of colorful cotton pa-khao-mah. While there is no clear history of the transition to the loud, colorful prints of modern-day Songkran shirts, it’s likely that the Aloha shirt lent itself nicely to the festival’s flowery and fun-loving traditions. As more Thais adopt the trend of wearing Aloha shirts beyond the Songkran holiday, we are hopeful that the fashion makes the jump from casual to everyday attire. Here are a few brands that are popular with Bangkokians nowadays: