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Hawaii's wearable postcards.

The aloha shirt is a summer classic, a collector's item still going strong

Harry Truman sported one on the cover of Life magazine. Elvis swiveled his hips in one in his hit movie Blue Hawaii. Two guys called Duke (surfer and Olympic champion swimmer Kahanamoku, and Olympian actor John Wayne) wore them regularly. And Tom Selleck sported them as he roared around Oahu in his red Ferrari in the "Magnum, P.I." television series. Hawaiian businessmen and tourists still wear them. The aloha shirt, a 1940s fashion statement that grew to a '50s frenzy, is a fad that has refused to fade.

"By fashion industry standards, the aloha shirt should have died out years ago," insists Hawaii historian Tommy Holmes. "But today there is probably no better-known garment in the world that captures the spirit of a place." Indeed, the passage of the aloha shirt from Hawaiian kitsch to Western classic hasn't been lost on collectors; a vintage shirt in mint condition that may have sold for as little as $5 in 1938 now commands anywhere from $500 to $2,500.

While the market for vintage shirts is admittedly small, the market for new aloha shirts is now hitting Main Street. Over the past few years, a growing number of Mainland department stores have begun carrying these boldly patterned, brightly colored shirts; one manufacturer admits that last year his company sold more shirts in Southern California alone than in the entire state of Hawaii.


Aloha shirts have their origins in Hawaii's early ethnic stew. According to Holmes, back in the 1920s, Punahou School students had local tailors make simple, loose-fitting shirts, inspired by Filipino bayau shirts, from colorfully patterned Japanese kimono fabrics. The fad caught on with tourists, who called them Hawaiian shirts and bought them as souvenirs, and in 1935 Musa-Shiya, a tailor on Honolulu's N. King Street, advertised "Aloha Shirts ... 95 cents and up." A year later, competitor Ellery Chun copyrighted the name.

World War II helped boost the popularity of the shirts, especially as they became fashion statements featured in movies like From Here to Eternity, in which stars Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra partied in them. In 1948, Aloha Week organizers in Hawaii encouraged businessmen to wear the shirts, but it wasn't until 1965 that the governor officially approved Hawaiian attire for state workers on aloha Fridays. In the '70s, surfers began buying the shirts from thrift shops and nicknamed them silkies because of their slinky feel.

Most vintage shirts were handmade in Hawaii, usually of rayon, often with buttons made of coconut or bamboo. Island motifs such as palm trees, flowers, and hula dancers adorned the fabrics used to make these early shirts--"wearable postcards," Holmes calls them.


Most quality contemporary shirts, including mainstream labels such as Jams World, Kahala, Reyn Spooner, and Cooke Street, are still made in Hawaii. But today's fabrics range from classic rayon to cotton, silk, and blends in bold new patterns and bright splashes of color reminiscent of modern art. As interest in vintage design has increased, several companies such as Locals Only (look for the Pineapple Juice label) also have introduced reproductions of classic shirts. Still, the West's classic summer shirt is no longer exclusively Hawaiian; resortwear designers worldwide are adapting this basic shirt to new themes, with Southwestern cactus and cowboys coming on strong.

While you can still find aloha specials for $19.99 on Waikiki sale racks (often in bright-colored cotton with a pattern--such as hibiscus blossoms--silk-screened on it in white), a good contemporary shirt ranges from $40 to $100 at boutiques and department stores.

Vintage aloha shirts in good condition are harder to find. The following shops offer a good selection and dependable inventory of classic aloha shirts as well as reproductions.

Oahu. Bailey's Antiques & Aloha Shirts (517 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu 96816; 808/734-7628) specializes in vintage shirts; they're crammed on racks and hanging from the ceiling. It also sells collectibles ranging from old posters to hula dolls. Open 9 to 8 Mondays through Saturdays, 10 to 6 Sundays.

Linda's Vintage Isle (373 Olohana St., Waikiki Beach, Honolulu 96815; 942-9517) is a hole-in-the-wall treasure packed with Hawaiiana just off Waikiki's main drag; it sells reproductions and vintage shirts from the '30s through the '80s (ask to see the photo index for the main collection of several hundred shirts stored in the back, or browse through the rack of '50s and '60s shirts and reproductions). Usually open 4 to 7 P.M. weekdays, 10 to 5 Saturdays, by appointment Sundays and other times.

Hawaii. Hula Heaven (75-5744 Alii Drive, Kailua-Kona 96740; 329-7885) is in the tower of the Kona Inn shopping center, just south of Hulihee Palace. The shop sells reproduction and vintage shirts and Hawaiian collectibles. Open daily from 9 to 9.
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Title Annotation:aloha shirts
Author:Phillips, Jeff
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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