The Aloha shirt appears to be making a comeback. Many aver that it never disappeared in the first place, and any web search will establish that the shirt appears to have made periodic “comebacks” in the past, but a recent sighting of David Beckham sporting one while in Miami has landed the fashion statement in the news and on the pages of tabloids and magazines once again.
Primarily known as “Hawaiian shirts” on the US mainland, the colorful pieces of clothing have been around for almost a century. An amalgam of several cultural influences – the colorful prints of Japanese fabrics, the collar and structure of a Western shirt, the untucked style of the Filipino barong tagalog – no one knows exactly when the shirts first appeared, though evidence points to the mid-to-late 1920s or early 1930s, and historians have posited several possible creators of the clothing.
One of these was Kōichirō Miyamoto, proprietor of the shop Musa-Shiya the Shirtmaker, who started making the shirts from Japanese textiles.
Another was Chinese merchant Ellery Chun of King-Smith Clothiers who is credited with being the first to produce ready-to-wear Aloha shirts, and actually trademarked the term in 1936.
Tourists to Hawai’i immediately fell in love with the shirts, and it was not long before clothing companies such as Kamehameha and Branfleet (now Kahala) jumped in to manufacture their own lines. Patterns, though colorful, were mostly assemblages of stamped images, but that changed with the founding of Shaheen in 1948.
Alfred Shaheen hired artists to create overall designs for the shirts, turning them from “hash prints” to art forms. The designs were further enhanced by Shaheen’s development of metallic dyes for embellishment and by the fact that most shirts during the period from 1945 to 1955 were made of rayon, which amplified the intensity of the colors.
By the mid-1950s, tourists, military personnel returning home from Hawai’i, actors, and surfers had turned the Aloha shirt into a national fashion statement. President Harry S. Truman had a collection of them. In the film From Here to Eternity, actor Montgomery Clift “died” in one. And teen heartthrob Elvis Presley wore Shaheen’s “Tiare Tapa” shirt on the cover of his album Blue Hawaii.
Aloha shirts had always been made of different fabrics – rayon, cotton, silk – but the widespread introduction and use of lesser-quality polyester materials in the ‘60s and ‘70s coincided with a decline in the popularity of the shirts. They never disappeared, however, and have undergone periodic resurgences, thanks to the use of fine cottons and more modern materials and to the attention shown by more recent designers.
Almost any vintage Aloha shirt in good condition may pique the interest of collectors, with many specimens selling for between $50 to $500, but the most valuable shirts are the rayon specimens produced between 1945 and 1955. And some of those have fetched from $10,000 to $15,000 at auction.
Some of the more popular labels include, not only the aforementioned Shaheen, Kamehameha, and Kahala, but Hale Hawaii, Catalina, Royal Hawaiian, and Kahanamoku.
Unfortunately, knock-offs abound, so it’s not wise to depend solely on a label. A knowledgeable collector will also look at the intensity of the colors, the pattern, the collar (older pieces had longer collars than more contemporary specimens), and even the number of buttons (older shirts usually had three to five buttons, while shirts today have six).
Care to learn more about Hawaiian Aloha shirts? (After all, you never know what you’ll come across at your local thrift shop or estate sale.) Check the resources below, and
The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands, by Dale Hope
The Art of the Aloha Shirt, by DeSoto Brown and Linda Boynton Arthur
Hawaiian Shirt Designs, by Nancy N. Schiffer
The Hawaiian Shirt: Its Art and History, by H. Thomas Steele
Alfred Shaheen – The Hawaiian Shirt Monarch (alfredshaheen.com) – Fascinating read includes history, innovations, museum exhibitions, more.
Best Hawaiian Shirts (The Hollywood Reporter) – From Amazon to Saint Laurent.
Classic aloha – Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii (Aloha Spotter) – Enjoy the pics.
Hawaiian Style: The Roots of the Aloha Shirt (Collectors Weekly) – In-depth description of its development.
The History of the Hawaiian Shirt (Smithsonian Magazine) – Fun read.
Vintage Hawaiian Shirts (Collectors Weekly) – Good intro to what collectors value.