Aloha Shirts in Depth

They are not called Hawaiian shirts. They take that seriously in Hawaii.

To recap, Dear Husband and I got to go to Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii for two amazing weeks in late April, early May. We brought back 15 pounds of souvenirs, per the weight difference in our luggage. I must confess that we went a little overboard buying aloha shirts. He got seven for himself, and, not to be outdone, I got eight for me. Oh, and our two dogs each got one as well. (I mean, who could resist?)

And here’s my first lesson of this post. They’re called aloha shirts, not Hawaiian shirts. They take that surprisingly seriously in laid-back Hawaii. Apparently, they have been called aloha shirts since at least the early 1930’s. This was news to me. I stand corrected.

I was hoping to write a post about the history of Hawaiian Aloha shirts, but it turns out there’s quite a bit of dispute regarding their origins. Entire books have been written on the subject. After my lazy Google research, I decided that this was a can of worms I didn’t want to open. For some interesting reading, check out this article and this one.

But here are some facts. Kind of. Sort of.

Aloha shirts came on the scene somewhere around the 1920’s or 1930’s. And yes, they originate in Hawaii, but there’s debate about the exact location. Originally, they were tailor made from printed cloth that was used for kimonos.

The popularity of these shirts has waxed and waned over the years. They were really popular around World War II, as US sailors brought them home. These colorful shirts also grabbed our focus when Hawaii became a state in 1959. And in the 1960’s California surfers made them cool again. (Oddly enough, The Beach Boys wore striped or plaid shirts during that era. Now you see them in aloha shirts all the time. But why, in my head, do I picture them young, wearing these tropical prints? Beats me.)

It was also in the 1960s that reverse print aloha shirts came into fashion. The vibrant color faces inward, and therefore the shirt has a more subdued coloring. We got a few of these. I wish they were reversible, though. Sometimes you want your colors to shine!

Celebrities made aloha shirts popular, too. Think Elvis in Blue Hawaii; Borgnine, Sinatra and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity; The Brady Bunch Hawaii episodes; and Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I.

Naturally, tourism to the Aloha State has kept this industry grinding out the shirts even in the less popular years. How do you visit Hawaii and not come back with a splashy, colorful, tropical acquisition? It’s practically a requirement. And wearing one of these shirts in Hackensack says, “Hey, I can afford to live a life of leisure on a Pacific island. Sorry. Not sorry.”

Here are the shirts we came back with.

When choosing aloha shirts, if you want to be authentic, go for cotton, and make sure the label says “Made in Hawaii”. Otherwise, you might be getting a cheap knock off from Thailand or China, made of a synthetic material that does not breathe at all, which is kind of the most important freakin’ thing when choosing summer wear, isn’t it?  (Lesson learned.)

I’m not going to lie, though. These shirts, if bought retail, can be ridiculously expensive. If you want to avoid the sticker shock, do what we did. First, hit up some thrift stores while you’re in Hawaii. Next, go to a Hawaiian Costco. They have a huge collection of these shirts at reasonable prices. Then, and only then, consider splurging on a really nice one from a boutique.

But attempting to do the latter nearly gave me a heart attack. I saw the aloha shirt of my dreams in a delightful little shop. I mean, it was love at first sight. The print was really unique, and would forever remind me of our snorkeling experiences. But then I was told that it was $120. Here’s a picture of it.

Never in my entire life have I worn a shirt that cost $120. I’d be afraid to move in it. I’d worry about staining it with soy sauce or sweat, or I’d snag it on a door handle or something. As much as I loved this shirt, I could not bring myself to pay that kind of money. I’m glad I was able to find a picture of it on the boutique’s website. At least I can gaze at it fondly. Two ships that pass in the night…

Oh, and another great way to get aloha shirts on the cheap is to have a husband who has lost disgusting amounts of weight. His recent acquisitions are in a smaller size, so I got some of his larger-sized hand-me-downs when we got home. Woo hoo!

Live vicariously through this blog. And while you’re at it, check out my book!


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

2 thoughts on “Aloha Shirts in Depth”

  1. You learn something new everyday. We bought and wore a lot of them in Thailand, except they were called Songkran shirts, after the big water/harvest festival held in peak summer!

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