• UO Culture: History of the Hawaiian Shirt

    If you were to take a walk through Honolulu and meander past the old brick buildings standing vigil over historical Downtown, you’ll undoubtedly come across throngs of businessmen draped in aloha shirts going about their daily work. Whereas the uniform for young professionals on the mainland may be a trim suit and tie, here in Hawaii, it’s the aloha shirt. And it’s not just the bankers, developers, or lawyers either. Young creatives—you know: people who bike to work, hold extensive record collections, and love their small-batch whiskey so damn much—have flocked back to the aloha shirt in droves in recent years. Perhaps you can blame it on a sense of irony, our picturesque weather, or a nod to Hawaii’s history, but the aloha shirt has definitely made a comeback among the trendsetters in Honolulu. And judging from the international spring/summer collections that have recently dropped, the aloha shirt has taken root worldwide as well. But here in the islands, we think we wear them better. Just ask Honolulu’s Roberta Powers—purveyor of her own line of modern, hip aloha shirts.
    Photos by UO Hawaii and words by Jeff Mull

    “I first started making modern aloha shirts back in 2010 when I opened up my store, Roberta Oaks, in Chinatown. I would see all these businessmen walking to and from work wearing these really boring, boxy aloha shirts,” says Roberta. “Aloha shirts are such a part of Hawaiian heritage, but they’d grown really stale. I thought to myself, ‘We could revamp these and make them a little more modern with better prints and a more tailored fit.’ So that’s what we did and they’ve been really popular ever sense. It feels really good to see people, especially younger people, gravitating back toward such an iconic part of Hawaiian culture.” 

    As Roberta alluded, aside from pineapples, surfing, and Don Ho and his tiny bubbles, the aloha shirt is one of Hawaii’s great exports. It’s only fitting that just a few short blocks from Roberta’s storefront, you can also trace the lineage of the aloha shirt back to a small dry goods store in Chinatown. While the exact origin of the aloha shirt is debatable, Ellery Chun of King-Smith Dry Goods is largely credited as being the shirt’s earliest front man. 

    In 1931, Chun returned to Honolulu after graduating from Yale to work in the family shop. In an effort to turn a penny during the Great Depression, Chun repurposed colorful scraps of old kimono fabric (Japanese robes) and had them sewn into a lightweight shirt. Some of the original designs depicted hula girls and pineapples. With their vibrant patterns and airy fabric, the shirts quickly caught on with the Waikiki surfers and visitors. As Hawaii continued to romanticize the rest of the continental United States, the shirt was exported to the mainland and became symbolic of the islands’ carefree reputation as a tropical paradise. By the 1940s and into the ’50s, demand for the shirts boomed and a cottage industry was born. 

    In the ensuing decades, the shirt would make intermittent comebacks as the likes of Elvis, Magnum P.I., and the original cast of Hawaii 5-0 brought them back into style on the mainland. In Hawaii, they’ve become so engrained in our culture that we even have a store, Bailey’s Antiques and Aloha Shirts, that carries more than 15,000 of them. 

    Today, as the aloha shirt renaissance continues to unfold and gain worldwide traction, people like Roberta Powers can’t help but sit back and smile. Countless brands with no connection to Hawaii have adopted the shirt into their warm-weather lines, but that suits her just fine. She knows that the shirts that are spun, cut, and sewn here in the islands have something no one can imitate: aloha, or a sense of love. 

    “For the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of international retailers and brands attempt to put their own spin on the aloha shirt,” Roberta says with a slight grin. “But I know the ones that we make right here in Hawaii have a little more legitimacy than ones you’ll find that were made in China. After all, this is the home of the aloha shirt. Ours are made with real aloha…and that can’t be replicated.” 

    If you're in Hawaii, keep a look out for the special UO Hawaii exclusive line of aloha shirts from Roberta Oaks to hit stores this month.

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