Jay Calderin

Reflections on the ideas behind fashion that place it at the center of my life’s work.

Aloha Style: The shirt with a fashion sense all its own

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Aloha can mean hello or goodbye. It can also be used to describe a garment – the Aloha shirt. Although it’s a short sleeve shirt with a collar, usually printed with a bold colorful print, it is considered a dress shirt in Hawaii where it originated. Most mainlanders associate the Hawaiian shirt with big brand names like Tommy Bahama, or as being the appropriate attire for a Jimmy Buffet concert. Parrothead or not, the Hawaiian shirt seems to build an audience within every generation since it was introduced to mainstream America by G.I.’s after World War II. For some it’s nostalgic, some it’s camp. For others it has become the symbol of an escape to a slower, hedonistic island lifestyle.

Ellery Chung is credited with having designed the first of these iconic shirts in the early 1930’s. He was a Chinese merchant who used old kimono fabrics to create brightly colored shirts for eager tourists in Waikiki, Hawaii. The locals also embraced this fashion phenomenon. The surfing community in particular, adopted both the shirt and the patterns featured on them into the cultural aesthetics of their sport. Even before Hawaii became a state in 1959, it was a very popular vacation destination. The shirt became as synonymous with the island as leis, ukuleles and grass skirts, not to mention being infinitely easier to incorporate into your wardrobe.

The Hawaiian shirt became a part of mainstream fashion thanks to many famous individuals who contributed to its popularity. President Harry S. Truman was often seen sporting one in The White House. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby brought them to the big screen in many of The Road movies, and Elvis Presley wore one on the cover of his Blue Hawaii album in 1961.

One of the most unique attributes of any Hawaiian shirt is the print. The traditional Aloha shirt features Polynesian patterns that take their inspiration from Hawaiian quilts, Tapa designs and floral motifs. Hawaiian quilts usually feature boldly colored, botanical patterns that radiate from a central point on a white background. Tapa is a bark cloth that is often decorated using natural dyes. The geometric patterns in many Tapa are distinctive in that the shapes and colors are created by using repetitive lines. These patterns are applied using hand-painting, stamping or stenciling techniques. Many floral patterns are created using native flora such as Hibiscus, Orchids, Plumeria blossoms, Ginger flowers or Birds of Paradise as inspiration. Contemporary versions of the garment use the design of the classic shirt and how the pattern is laid out to feature almost anything that can be used as a motif – cars, drinks, and even brand or sports team logos.

There is also a definite difference between the aesthetic preferences of the Malahini and the Kama’aina. The former is what newcomers are called, and their general preference leans toward bold, busy and colorful patterns. The latter, identifying natives of Hawaii, who might be more inclined to opt for subtler variations, like the ‘reverse print’ – a shirt which is assembled with the intent of having the printed side of the fabric on the inside of the garment, resulting in muted version of the pattern being displayed on the outer surface.

Aloha style has endured for over seventy years so think twice before you take to heart what the fashion gatekeepers might have to say about it. The humble yet expressive Hawaiian shirt is here to stay, but as in all matters of fashion a discerning eye is key. Not all Hawaiian shirts are created equal. It also takes a little courage to don bright colors and big patterns. So the next time you’re getting checked out at Trader Joe’s, smile and take a moment to compliment the cashier on their fashionable uniform.

Many places with a tropical climate have adopted similar garments in the name of practicality, cultural pride and of course style. In Okinawa for instance, many Kariyushi shirts incorporate elements of Shīsā temple guardian designs. The Puerto Rican community is another culture that has their own special shirt, the Guayabera. I have vivid memories of how elegant my grandfather and his friends looked in their clean, crisp, pleated Guayaberas as they played dominos at a small card table in the summer sun. But that’s another story.


Written by Jay Calderin for Color Magazine/April 2011


Written by jaycalderin

May 12, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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