Everything You Need to Know About Hawaiian shirts

The summer is here to stay, at least for a month or so - and no matter what chain stores are trying to tell us with their AW collection lookbook releases, the struggle to dress properly for the next heatwave is still real.
Author: Mateusz Tryjanowski
Honestly, I never fully understood the logic of the clothing industry (ok, at least on an emotional level, I know a bit about economics), which always made us start thinking about the autumn in the middle of the summer, putting up their summer sales and replacing season-friendly clothes with a new collection full of warmer fabrics, sweaters and coats. What for? Why?

The above are rhetorical questions, of course. We all know a bit about how this world works. Anyway, nowadays I am trying to be less bothered and accept the reality that surrounds me - and the fact which part of the clothing market I follow (or, more accurately, which one I do not follow) also helps. Now I can sit quietly, plan my well-deserved holiday trip (including what to wear in the heat and extreme humidity) and keep thinking that sometimes it is just worth being an opportunist when it comes to these market rules. Maybe it is not the bad idea to treat all those last chance sales as an impulse to consider a few summer things that you might actually need?
Well, probably yes - and this is the moment I officially introduce our today’s topic, the Hawaiian shirt!
Although it already appeared in more than one of Poszetka's summer lookbooks, it yet had to get a proper presentation on Everyday Classic blog it deserves. And it just so happens that not only is it the perfect garment for the current weather, but it also landed in the Summer Sale selection, so… I had to hurry up a little bit with my writing, as I wanted to be able to tell you its story before the end of the summer.

Is this an easy topic? I don't think so. First of all - because, as is usually the case with things strongly embedded in pop culture, it is easy to write a boring and lengthy article if only you start going too deep into the topic. Secondly - because I feel that so many associations, myths and ideas have arisen around the Hawaiian shirts, that approaching the topic without any unnecessary prejudice is relatively difficult.
So let's start with the name: is the Hawaiian shirt really from Hawaii?
Spoiler: best short answers inlude: "It depends", "Yes and no" and "Yes, but". But generally yes.
It can be said that it is the one of the most… multicultural? garments out there - today we know that it was most likely born out of a combination of the western culture shirt as we know it (buttoned-through, collared) with the eastern techniques of fabric dyeing and printing. One was brought to Hawaii by the British and Americans, the other by the Chinese and Japanese - and the whole thing was spiced up with local folklore (or a tourist image of how it should look like). Something that resembled today's Hawaiian shirt was probably first made around the beginning of the 20th century by local
tailors, mainly immigrants from Asia (by the way, still the largest ethnic group inhabiting Hawaii). However, it is possible to precisely name two "fathers" who are directly responsible for its universal form and the popularization.

The first one of them is Gordon Young - the legend (with a large grain of truth) goes that his proto-Hawaiian shirts were tailored for him by his mother, out of fabrics used traditionally for kimonos. We know for sure that in the 1920s he attended classes at the University of Hawaii wearing them (where he already stood out) and in 1926 he did the same in Seattle at the University of Washington (where he stood out even more), causing quite a stir among students. It was definitely something to remember back then!
Casual, loose-fitted printed shirts started coming up in fashion, although still mainly locally. Having them made bespoke by the tailor remained the only option - until Ellery Chun, the man who is now said to be the first to sell ready-made Hawaiian shirts, became interested in the topic. He first started in the mid 1930s with a small display in his father's King-Smith Clothiers store, already calling these "Hawaiian shirts". Additionally, in 1936 and 1937 he registered the trademarks "Aloha Sportswear" and "Aloha Shirt", which - especially the latter - are used to this day.

It was these trademarks that got him the fame and a main reson to be remembered - because, to be precise, it should also be mentioned that in the mid-1930s so much was happening in the subject of Hawaiian shirts that his priority in sales is not so certain. The same goes for the "aloha shirt" name - however, he was the one who made it official, so let’s give him the justice.
Anyway, as I mentioned, the trend has started. Locals wore those shirts because they were comfortable and perfectly suited for the Hawaiian heat. American tourists also bought them there and brought back with them to the continent, often as an unusual but practical souvenir. Hollywood actors began to wear them on-screen and off-screen, making it the perfect summer weekend attire. There was no stopping to its rise of the popularity. Direction: mainstream!

In the meantime, the development of dyeing techniques, fabric innovations and broadly understood design continued. While previously mainly old-technique Japanese kimono fabrics were used, now the new ones began to be created from scratch, having only Hawaiian shirts in mind. Simple, 2-3 colored prints in shades of blue, indigo and black began to be replaced by multi-colored, colorful patterns, often very complex. From geometric, through abstract, to real objects or scene portraits.
Palm trees, papayas, ukuleles, surfboards… but also drinks, sailing boats and dancing people - in short, everything that could be associated with tropical climate and holidays. The base colors includes yellows and reds (those still often dyed with ocher, using a rather traditional local technique), but also other pastels more vivid, aggressive colors. Basically no limits.
Progress was in mind, but a clear split quickly emerged. Locals, who also wore such shirts (after all, they were airy, comfortable and practical) began to consider the new designs a bit too crazy, radical and exaggerated. While they started to choose the quieter ones, often cut from reverse-dyed fabrics, the most vivid and distinctive ones were bought by foreigners, who worn them with pride and a belief that they had bought something authentic.
Well, the concept of authenticity is not completely wrong - all in all, these clothes were made locally, created jobs for the local community and, to some extent, became an export product of Hawaii. Of course, World War II, US troops stationed in the Pacific and the post-war economic boom took it even further, the production continued to increase. The name we use today - "Hawaiian shirt" - was then popularized in
the United States and began to function in common language as a term for an entire category of such shirts.
It can also be said that the shirt became more and more American, not only Hawaiian, in its character. After all, in 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state of the United States, which further accelerated the development of tourism and economic integration - and although theoretically it was still a product of export (internal, but thousands of kilometers do their job), it became a summer wardrobe staple on the continent also. There popped up some new, modernized versions, often better-made, cut from the more luxurious cloth, suited to the taste of those who wanted to wear something a little less tacky.

By the way, Hawaiian shirts were enjoyed locally - in the late 40s, they became an officially accepted appropriate business attire during islands’ hottest months (June till October). Also, in 1947, Aloha Week (a festival promoting local culture) was held for the first time, already incorporating aloha shirts as an element of local folklore. Apparently it helped the whole Hawaiian clothing industry, weakened by the expansion of more Western, standarized clothing, sell more goods on the domestic market.
Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? That’s not all - 15 years later, in 1962, the Hawaiian Fashion Guild began a wide-ranging promotion of Hawaiian shirts as a proper local attire, beginning with donating 2 shirts to each member of the Hawaiian House of Representatives and the local Senate. The campaign was to be justified both by the comfort of the residents in the heat and the willingness to support the local economy. It can be said that it worked, because in 1966 the Aloha Friday was introduced - encouraging all the workers to wear their shirts on this day of the week - which, by the way, was the precursor of the Casual Friday as we know it today. Without going into too much detail, it is worth adding that later, in the 1970s, no one cared much about the day of the week anymore and the Hawaiian shirts started to be worn by everybody everywhere on the islands.

However, it's time to come back from the far Pacific to the continental reality. Although - apart from its place of origin - this type of shirt has never become recognized as an everyday staple that you can wear anywhere, it has still become extremely popular and found its way into the wardrobes of many, what finally became its strength as well as a curse.
In some circles, for many years, the Hawaiian shirt became synonymous with being tacky - it symbolized an indefinite longing for a vacation (or rather a disrespectful attitude to life), being worn by balding-but-pretending-too-still-being-young guys that didn’t care much about their attire, they just wanted to wear something comfortable (or, in some cases, cool). As is often the case, it was the users who have damaged the image of the object, not its features.
Today, fortunately, we are on our way to the redemption - the Hawaiian shirt is slowly becoming the acceptable garment once again, being recognized as something that can be worn tastefully. Well, just take a look at the Instagram - it’s all over out there!
It is worth adding that due to its renaissance, this category has also expanded a bit, with both patterns and fabrics adapting to modern needs. Today, such shirts are made of various summer fabrics (linen, cotton, viscose or lyocell - which is brilliant! - or their blends), each of which has a slightly different character. Design began to draw more from a bit more calm, classic shirts, but also from bold, though not-Hawaiian, sports shirts from the first half of the 20th century. Asian themes are also widely present (which is understandable as it is de facto the traditionally most appropriate kind of pattern for such a garment) - you can find anything ranging from Japanese Ukiyo-e art to quasi-traditional, but processed by pop culture motifs like waves, tigers and pagodas printed on the shirts.

Now even Poszetka has introduced their version - or interpretations, if you will. Those three shirts are very different from one another, withdrawing from different period and place each. There is a tropical theme - the closest to Hawaii, but very modern, being rather complex and precise. There are wide stripes - the most vintage, being also H as Hollywood (Golden Age) rather than Hawaii. There is a large leaf print - a simple, two-color pattern, reminding of something Japanese a bit, maybe even Hawaiian, and yet the most European in its vibe. However, they all deserve to be called Hawaiian shirts, no doubt!
And so we come to the point when its finally time to sum up the article, doing so with a question: is there a place for a Hawaiian shirt in the wardrobe of a modern style enthusiast?

Sure there is! I'm convinced that nowadays, with so many options out there, everyone can find a good option for themselves. I can honestly add that I wholeheartedly believe in the approach that if you just like something and want to wear it, do not hesitate too long, as you will probably look good in it, or at least feel so - which is equally important.
And if you have any more doubts, I will give you a hint: the Hawaiian shirt will be best to try on your next summer vacation. Remember, they don't know you there. You can always act as someone else. Your another self. Your holiday self
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