Surfbeat: Hawaiian shirts with style and a story

Subscribe to Forte Magazine

Surfbeat: Hawaiian shirts with style and a story

Master surf filmmaker Jack McCoy was in Torquay recently talking about one of his passions – the spirit of Aloha – which he talks about regularly around the country. This time however, there was a twist. Jack was presenting a talk at Patagonia on the unique history of the Aloha or Hawaiian shirt.

Hawaiian shirts have a pretty amazing background. They might look like something your surf crazy uncle wears at family gatherings, but the shirts themselves are steeped in Hawaiian culture and history.

The first Hawaiian shirts were made by a Japanese trader in Honolulu in 1915 using Kimono fabrics and prints repeated together. These early shirts were bright and colourful, quickly becoming popular with tourists and homesick Japanese residents of Hawaii. Oddly enough the first Hawaiian shirts featured images of Mt Fuji, geisha girls, shrines and other Japanese icons.

Twenty years later Chinese merchant Ellery Chun started producing the modern Aloha shirts. This time surfers were attracted to the bright shirts featuring colourful patterns repeated with a short sleeve cut. Within years, dozens of businesses began manufacturing the colourful shirts for tourists and surfers.

The World War II saw a demand of Hawaiian shirts. US serviceman on leave in Hawaii bought up big, and the popularity of the shirts spread to the United States mainland. By the fifties, the designs were more reflective of Hawaiian culture. Pineapples, waves, surfers and tropical vistas all found their way onto these bright shirts and beach wear.

In 1961, Elvis landed in Hawaii for the filming of his cult classic Blue Hawaii. The film gave Elvis, Hawaiian culture and Aloha shirts massive exposure around the world. Elvis was one of the world’s top entertainers at this stage, so when he appeared in the film (and on the album cover) wearing a Hawaiian shirt, sales took off all over America.

During the next decade, the popularity of Elvis, Gidget and a bunch of beach movies gave Hawaiian shirts a massive promotional push into the USA. Suddenly everyone from Mick Jagger, Bob Hope, Richard Nixon, Tom Cruise and the original Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson were wearing them.

Today Hawaiian shirts come in all shapes and sizes. A number of noted collectors in the USA have massive collections including John Lasseter (of Toy Story fame), and David Bailey who has over 25,000 Hawaiian shirts.

The Aloha shirt has come a long way in 100 years… but has never gone out of style.

By John Foss