Since the 1930's the Hawaiian aloha shirt has been the flavor of the Islands. Acceptable in either formal or informal settings the colorful, loosely worn attire has epitomized the easy, fun loving life style. From its origin as a humble worker's palaka shirt, the aloha shirt has become the trademark of the Islands. Original designs featured Polynesian motifs or tapa such as Tahitian pareu, which was a simple piece of cloth of bold, simple designs of floral designs in white on a plain solid background or from Hawaiian quilt designs with Asian influence. Symbols of long life and prosperity the designs were in muted colors that often reverse printed (an innovation of the 60's) to tone down the effect.
Ellery Chun, who operated King-Smith Dry Goods and Clothiers in Honolulu in the 1930's, sold brightly colored shirts to tourists made from Kimono remnants. After an advertisement in the now defunct Honolulu Advertiser (it has been consolidated with the Star Bulletin and is called the Star Advertiser) on June28th 1932, the phrase "aloha shirt" Chun was quick to trademark it. His sister Ethel Chun Lum designed the colorful shirts, originally in silk, possibly influenced by her voyage to the US mainland from Hawaii aboard a Matson liner.
Matson Navigation's introduction of three magnificent liners and the building of the historic Royal Hawaiian Hotel propelled Hawaii into a tourist destination bringing boatloads of visitors to the islands. Soon celebrities such as Duke Kahanamoku (who had his own line of shirts) John Barrymore, Bing Crosby, and Elvis Presley, John Wayne and Montgomery Clift - were widely photographed wearing the shirts. Even Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman were photographed wearing them off-duty.
From the 1920's through the 1950's considered the gold age of aloha shirt, many designers and labels etched an indelible legacy, John "King Leoni" Meigs, Kamehameha and Branfleet (Kahala ) later to become Kahala Sportswear, labels and Max Lewis who created Royal Hawaiian Creations. Gumps opened a store in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in 1937 introducing Hawaiian themed hand-blocked fabrics for upholstery and curtains. These prints became available as low cost clothing fabric. Honolulu based designers traveled to Japan to source Yukata fabric and create their own island style designs. Today, fabric is still printed in Japan, although developing nations are competing with cheaper workforces.
In 1946, after the Hawaii Fashion Guild funded a study of aloha shirts for comfortable business attire the City and County of Honolulu adopted a resolution allowing it's employees to wear sports shirts from June - October. It wasn't until 1947 with the creation of the Aloha Week festival that they were allowed to wear aloha shirts to work. In 1965 Bill Foster Sr, President of the Hawaii Fashion Guild, led the campaign Operation Liberation and the "Aloha Fridays" a tradition that continues today.
The 60's began the modern era of aloha shirts when designers like Reyn McCullough and Ruth Spooner engineered reverse prints that became acceptable as casual business attire. Paradise Island and Rai Nani and Reyn-Spooner shirts from that era are sought after collectibles today. Recently, there has been a resurgence of the prints from the golden age of aloha shirts with companies in Hawaii and Japan resurrecting the prints in rayon, a synthetic that was introduced in the 40's. Indeed, with the retro look in fashion, Hawaiian shirts from the 1950s are increasingly popular on the mainland and in Asia as pricey collector items. "The Japanese are probably the biggest consumers of vintage aloha wear, and Californians are second.
Aloha shirts continue to be a major economic player in Hawaii. In 1960 Kamehmeha Garments shipped over 35 tons of aloha shirts. And today, 30 percent of shirts produced in Hawaii are shipped out of state with a return of $160 million.