The History of Aloha Shirts

The History of Aloha Shirts

This post marks the beginning of an ongoing series of posts about fashion history. We’ll cover classic pieces, trends, or, as in the case of today’s topic, a classic that is currently on trend.

Hawaiian shirts, known in Hawai’i as “aloha shirts,” began as a product of the interactions among Hawai’i’s many ethnic populations, and the shirts have reflected changes in Hawai’i’s native and colonial populations since early in the twentieth century. Hawai’i is the only U.S. state without a white ethnic majority–in fact, the state has no ethnic majority at all.


Above: Details of Aloha patterns from the Museum of Hawaiian Shirts

The aloha shirt evolved from palaka, a Hawaiian corruption of “frock” that refers both to a textile (a checked cotton) and an article of clothing. These shirts were already a hybrid of Western button-front shirts and loose-fitting Filipino barong tagalog–a sheer, long-sleeved shirt worn untucked. The palaka cemented the construction elements of the classic Hawaiian shirt: the open collar, boxy shape, and straight hem.They were mass-produced in simple check patterns for plantation workers, usually in the checked cotton of the same name. But by the 1930s, local Chinese and Japanese tailors began making the shirts with Asian motifs in printed cotton and silk, making the aloha shirt further representative of Hawai’i’s diversity.

Left: Historical photo of early palaka shirt [Source]
Right: Modern interpretation of palaka shirt [Source]

Before World War II, the majority of aloha shirts bore Japanese motifs on Japanese-made textiles, often kimono silks that were stocked by tailors on the islands; but since the war, native Hawaiian and “chop suey” (mixed ethnic) motifs have been the most popular, with Chinese and Japanese motifs trailing behind, occasionally experiencing brief, faddish resurgences (1). In the 40s and 50s, rather than repurposing existing Asian textiles, textile designers began creating prints especially for aloha shirts. As rayon quality improved, it became the textile of choice for many aloha shirt designers. Rayon shirts were called “silkies” because of their soft, smooth handfeel. Painter Eugene Savage Matson, designer and architect John “Keoni” Meigs, Elsie Krassas, and Bob Sato, among others, created recognizable (now highly sought-after) prints in the classic silky period.


Left: ‘Silky’ Pattern Detail [Source]
Right: ‘Silky’ Pattern Detail [Source]

Before the 1950s, aloha shirts were primarily worn by tourists and military stationed in the islands, though locals, called kama’aina, donned them for some special occasions. But Hawaiian businesses began to promote aloha shirts to kama’aina to improve sales. At first, the shirts became acceptable business casual, tucked in, during the heat of the summer in the 50s, then on Fridays, due to a campaign for state-wide “Aloha Friday” in the 60s. The American tradition of “casual Friday” stems from the migration of Aloha Friday across the Pacific to California in the 1960s and 70s.  In addition to casual Fridays, kama’aina adoption of the shirts also had another major effect on fashion more broadly: the technique of “reverse print” was popularized by aloha shirt manufacturers. They made shirts with the reverse side of the textile facing outward to create a more muted print favored by locals.

In the time since, aloha shirts have fallen in an out of fashion outside of Hawaii, but they have lately resurged in popularity, with a large runway showing in s/s 2012 (Prada RTW led the pack in s/s 2011 with the now-infamous banana shirt), though many modern iterations eschew the classic palaka shape. A number of streetwear and fast fashion labels have followed the trend since (though skate-and-surf-aligned streetwear labels always have their share of aloha-style shirts). And the trend has shown surprising longevity, with a number of 2014 and 2015’s s/s shows– including 3.1 Phillip Lim, Marc Jacobs, Dries Van Noten, Prada, MAN, and Yohji Yamamoto’s Y-3– still referencing aloha shirts in the past year.

The fashion community has been getting in on the aloha shirt action. That surprisingly cool aloha-print romper (a phrase I never thought I’d type) even cropped up in bhoka’s TSwift inspo post. And here are a few fit pics from users:

1. dynamite goes for the classic summer fit with white sneaks and light jeans–this floral shirt is not technically an aloha shirt, but the spirit is there. [go to dynamite’s fit]
fuiste has a cleaned-up version of the aloha shirt fit. [go to fuiste’s fit]
_beacon does a variation on the white sneakers theme [go to _beacon’s fit]

Shopping List

Check out these made in Hawaii brands: Reyn Spooner, Roberta Oaks, Tori Richard, and Paradise Found (the makers of Tom Selleck’s Magnum P.I. shirt) 

F21 Mr aloha shirtAsos Shirt in short sleeve

Scotch and Soda Classic Hawaiian Print shirtjcrew cotton print shirtReyn Spooner Monstera Print Shirt

Gitman Mon Chou ChouGitman Good Catch Acne Studios Ericson Printed Short Sleeve Shirt


Thanks to The Museum of Hawaiian Shirts for the use of their images.

References and further reading






Next Post:
Previous Post:
This article was written by
There are 3 comments for this article
    ab167 Author at 2:49 pm


    I did not want to pollute bhoka’s lovely design with my crummy cell phone pics, so this didn’t make the final cut, but I still wanted to share this Edo-period (c. 1710) hanging scroll from the Met that demonstrates really clearly the Japanese influence on aloha prints.


    complete image

    info placard

    Here’s a modern floral aloha print for comparison:

    Gremmi at 5:00 am

    I lived in Hawaii from 1965 to 1968 in Waikiki on Paoakalani St.
    We used to listen to Don Ho for free in the International Market Place. I surfed with a 9’6″ BING at the outside Poplars Break.
    When I moved back to the Mainland I had a collection of beautiful Hawaiian Shirts. They were made of silk with coconut buttons. I hand washed them and hung them in the air to dry. I wore them till they fell off me.
    Thanks for the memories.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>