fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)

Aloha Shirts

I have found there is very little middle ground when it comes to the “Hawaiian” or aloha shirt. Obviously – or not – I am one of those free-spirited individuals who use the words colorful,” “neat” and “cool” in describing these wearable representations of the “Aloha Spirit.”

More fascinating than some of the shirt prints that may assault the eyes, is the history of the aloha shirt. Hawaiian-print shirts come from a blending of Western and Asian cultures. The forerunner of the aloha shirt is reputed to be the heavy “thousand-mile shirt” once worn by pioneers and missionaries for work. Over time, Polynesian designs and patterns were added to these garments.

The Beginnings

Sometime during the late 1920s, a tailor in Wakiki named Ellery J. Chun made use of a bright, flowery piece of fabric found laying around his King-Smith Tailor Shop to craft a shirt. He is coined the term “aloha shirt” … creating what has became a well-known garment of both Hawaiian tourists and islanders.

For a number of years, aloha shirts were produced only in small tailor shops on the island. Herbert Briner took the first step towards wide-spread distribution of these unique shirts by converting the only existing garment production facility in the islands (formerly a uniform manufacturer) into Hawaii’s first ready-to-wear garment factory, and re-opened it for business during 1936 as The Kamehameha Garment Company. (The company takes its name from Hawaii’s legendary King Kamehameha I, who uniting the island chain during 1795.) Even today, antique clothing aficionados prize original Kamehameha “silky” aloha shirts, which can fetch hundreds dollars. Coveted early aloha shirts from manufacturers such as Aloha, the Kahala, Royal Hawaiian, Paradise Hawaii and Surfriders Sportswear can fetch as much as $1,000. Shirts from the 1970s to the present are pretty much ignored by “true collectors.” Today, Kamehameha and other aloha shirt makers continue to produce shirts based on the early prints.

What I Like

Other manufacturers have since tried to jump on the aloha shirt bandwagon, with varying degrees of success. One of my personal favorites is the Reyn Spooner®’s “Spooner Kloth” shirts. During the 1950s, Reyn McCullough, a successful owner of a men’s wear store on California’s Catalina Island, moved his family to Hawaii after the Aloha State joined the U.S. He thought that jet travel, which was in its infancy, would open up opportunity in the state. Mr. McCollough created his own brand of aloha shirt, after finding most of the shirts available at the time used only the familiar loudly-colored prints, which were usually remnants from the production of muumuus.

Mr. McCollough’s desire to create a unique shirt led him to Ruth Spooner, who had a reputation for making the best “kine” custom surf trunks in Hawaii. For a period of time, Ruth Spooner’s Spooners of Waikiki supplied Mr. McCollough with swim wear and shirts. Mr. McCollough bought her business during 1962 and began making his own aloha shirts with four sewing machines in the basement of his Ala Moana store. He merged the two company names to create Reyn Spooner®.

The First Casual Fridays?

Aloha shirts got a boost during 1966, when the Hawaii Fashion Guild persuaded local businesses to permit aloha clothing in the workplace on Fridays. (Reportedly, one business allowed employees to wear Aloha Shirts to the office as early as 1948.) One Reyn Spooner® design, an Ivy-League-based, all cotton button-down aloha pullover was popular, but Mr. McCollough was still looking for an alternative to the common bright-colored fabrics. However, he did like the muted colors of shirts worn by surfers as the prints were bleached out by the sun and surf. He discovered that the same “chambray” appearance could be created by turning floral prints inside out. Reyn Spooner® is now well known for this reverse print.

Over time, the aloha shirt has become accepted as business attire through the Hawaiian islands. But be warned, not every tropical print shirt is necessarily an aloha shirt. The Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii,declared in the ’60s that aloha shirts “Must be Made in Hawaii.” Shirts not made in Hawaii are thereby declared not authentic aloha shirts.

Quick Facts

• The original Aloha shirts were hand painted Tapa (Bark Cloth) from the wauke plant.

• Colors have specific meaning when used in Aloha shirts, such as yellow for victory, red for valor and white for holiness.

• Some of the first people to wear aloha shirts were missionaries, Hawaiians, Chinese, and Japanese.

• Chinese and Japanese apparel producers later redesigned the shirt and trained Hawaiians to produce it. These redesigned Aloha shirts were made from silk/cotton, but by the 1940s rayon became more popular because it was easier to dye.

Aloha Shirt Links (Opens a New Window)

» Reyn’s
» Hilo Hattie
» Royal Hawaiian
» Kilauea Clothing
» Kahala
» Kilauea Clothing

Related Links (Opens a New Window)

» An Academic Look
» Aloha Shirt Book
» Brief History
» Fun Facts
» Largest Aloha Shirt
» More History