From Hawaii to Hollywood: The History of the Aloha Shirt

The Hawaiian shirt, officially known as the ‘aloha shirt’ as we all know, is brightly coloured, loose-fitting and adorned with wild patterns. By opposing the social norms it has become a counter-culture icon and something that every man needs in his summer wardrobe. But where did it all start? 

Well, it potentially started with Captain James Cook, a British explorer known for his voyages in the Pacific Ocean and Australia. It is noted that he would have been the first to introduce the western shirt to the islands following an unexpected visit in 1778, with missionaries who subsequently taught the Hawaiians how to sew.

Hawaii is known for its remarkable mix of ethnicities. Looking back in history the islands were populated almost entirely by Hawaiians in the 1800s, however, due to the increasing influx of Americans and Europeans who brought with them new diseases, the population of Hawaiians was decimated in the first two decades of the century. Fast forward to the 1850s and we see the start of Chinese immigration, the late 1870s saw the arrival of the Portuguese, the late 1880s brought the Japanese, and after 1900 came the Koreans and Filipinos. The result today means Hawaii boasts extraordinary diversity, and it is clear that the influence of the many Asian immigrants was pivotal in the creation of the famed shirt. 

Sadly it's very difficult to identify the exact origin of the aloha shirt or its creator, however, we know that it first made an appearance in the 1920s/ early 1930s. Rumour has it that Japanese tailor Kōichirō Miyamoto, the owner of Honolulu based dry goods store “Musa-Shiya the Shirtmaker’, started a buzz by making shirts out of colourful Japanese prints. However, this has contended with the idea that it was actually Chinese merchant Ellery Chun of the store in Waikiki, known as “King-Smith Clothiers and Dry Goods” who started it all! Or it could have simply been a college student who created a prototype of the button-down collared shirt made out of yukata (the same cloth used by Japanese women to produce work kimonos)? Who knows! 

What we do know is that it was in fact Ellery Chun who trademarked the term “aloha shirt” in 1936, and it has stuck ever since. In fact, the Hawaiian shirt had such an appeal to both natives and visitors, that within a decade Honolulu had 275 tailors making them! During this time the small Pacific Islands enjoyed an unexpectedly vibrant trade in textiles from Japan, which was the only place with the willingness and knowledge to make small runs of complex, handmade fabrics. 

So how did a shirt that was made in Hawaii for Hawaiians and tourists of Hawaii end up on virtually everyone's radar? It’s simple, really. Almost 30 years after it was trademarked, Elvis Presley brought it to mainstream minds by donning a red floral version in the 1961 film Blue Hawaii. This brought the aloha shirt to the forefront of popular culture with a powerful blast of subdued Rock’n’Roll. Before that, it was thanks to Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity (1953), and since then we’ve seen it favoured by Al Pacino in Scarface (1983), Christian Slater in True Romance (1993), and more recently Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019).

In other words, the Hawaiian shirt is here to stay, so if you don’t already own one or even if you do, it's time you got yourself a new piece of historic Pacific Island fashion in your closet because this bad boy is never going out of fashion.