The Hawaiian shirt is a true vintage classic, an iconic look that has lasted through the decades and is now a staple in the summer style staples. Whether you’re inspired by a retro film or your uncle’s holiday style, there’s no doubt that its influence is everywhere in fashion. So we’ve decided to delve into the history of this iconic shirt, from its origins to the big pop culture moments that have kept the Hawaiian shirt back to the forefront of men’s fashion.
The Origin of the Hawaiian Shirt
Even though Hawaii was self-governed in the 1880s there was still a massive presence of US-run businesses. Seeking cheap labour, American business owners recruited from all corners of the world, from China, Korea and Portugal, but most importantly to the Aloha shirt, Japanese immigrants.
Why was this important?
Aloha shirts have strong Japanese roots as these immigrants often brought with them bright kimono fabrics. Filipino and Chinese immigrants also play a role by bringing barong talongs, a type of traditional untucked shirt, and multicoloured silks.
These foreign influences, paired with Hawaiian native Kapa cloth clothes, were instrumental in creating the Hawaiian shirt.
Fast forward to the 1920s where Gordon Young, a student at the University of Hawaii, worked with his mother’s dressmaker to create a ‘pre-aloha shirt’. Using Japanese Yutaka cloth, known to be used by Japanese women for work kimonos. Patterns included blue or black bamboo and geometric designs on white backgrounds. Soon enough, these became popular with his classmates in Hawaii. Young later attended the University of Washington, bringing his shirts with him, turning heads aplenty and sparking a lot of fashion debate.
It wasn’t until the 30s that the Aloha shirt really started to increase in popularity. The key to this was Ellery Chun, a local businessman who had just graduated from Yale in 1931. He transformed a Chinese dry goods shop into the first mass producer of Hawaiian shirts, coining the term “Aloha-shirts” and making them a must-have of Honolulu.
The Mass production of Hawaiian Shirts
Shortly after, Hawaiian shirts went into mass production. Alfred Shaheen was at the forefront of this, during the 50s his textile company ‘Shaheen’s of Honolulu’ was the largest producing Hawaiian shirts in Hawaii. Aloha shirts for men were his big speciality, but his range also included sarong dresses for women, the first of their kind being made in large-scale. As sales boomed, Shaheen hired teams of artists to design new motifs for fabrics, with artists experimenting with prints and producing non-traditional coconut tree’s, oriental fish and surfers.
Other big names such a Kamehameha and Duke Kahanamoku, as well as Shaheen’s of Honolulu, helped turn the Hawaiian shirt from a novelty tourist item into a commercially traded product.
Our 6 Favourite Hawaiian Shirt Moments In Pop Culture
From Here to Eternity, 1953.
Hollywood in the 50s really embraced the shirt. Shaheen was big on celebrity endorsement, encouraging all the biggest Hollywood stars to wear his pieces, helping them break through to more mainstream fashion in America. They became immortalised on the silver screen with Frank Sinatra, Ernest Borgnine, Montgomery Clift, and Burt Lancaster all wearing them in the 1953 movie classic, “From Here to Eternity.” making them a staple in movie fashion history.
Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii, 1961.
Elvis was THE style icon of his time, breaking boundaries in men's fashion throughout his career, capturing the imagination of the world. When the King of Rock n Roll starred in Blue Hawaii, he was the perfect model for Shaheen’s Hawaiian Shirts. Coupled with an iconic soundtrack and set in paradise, Elvis made the Hawaiian shirt the perfect item for a summer holiday on the beach.
Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I., 1980-1988.
This American crime drama set in Hawaiian became an overnight success, ranking in the top 20 TV shows in the US for most of the 80s. As the key character, Tom Selleck’s stardom exploded, and his relaxed summer style featuring multiple Hawaiian shirts in a dazzling array of colours and prints, along with short shorts, baseball caps and accessorised with lots of chest hair and a giant tash, became one of the most recognisable looks of the decade.
Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, 1994.
Just when you thought the Hawaiian shirt’s loud colours had been left in the 80s, the outlandish comedian Jim Carrey somehow brings it back for his bizarre character in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Not the most obvious source of style inspo, Carrey works an open Hawaiian shirt over a white t-shirt and flashy trousers making it modern, fun and wonderfully weird.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Romeo + Juliet, 1996.
This was quite possibly the best film of the 90s, with Baz Luhrmann adapting William Shakespeare’s classic without changing the language, but updating the location, music and style, taking it to dizzying heights of cool. Leonardo DiCaprio cemented his 90s heartthrob status for life in this film, and his beautiful collection of Hawaiian shirts, also worn by his crew The Montagues, showcase how to make this look effortlessly cool.
Johnny Depp, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998.
A modern classic, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a trippy adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s American Dream novel that became a cult hit. Johnny Depp took his wardrobe into his own hands, managing to get a hand on items that really did belong to Thompson himself, including his iconic Hawaiian shirts. This bad boy take on the relaxed summer look was combined with hazy yellow sunglasses, bucket hats and converse, perfect for an endless, potentially trippy, summer.
How to style a Hawaiian shirt
Feeling inspired by our top classic Hawaiian shirt moments? We've chosen 3 easy styles perfect for everyday wear whether your off on holiday, having a weekend at a festival or just hanging out with your mates.
Hit the beach in a classic Hawaiian shirt and add some fresh colours to your holiday wardrobe. Whether you're looking for scenic beach prints, palm leaf patterns or a novelty parrot motif, we have a Hawaiian shirt for every occasion. Style with beach trunks or shorts for an easy breezy look to handle the heat.
Shop bold Hawaiian print perfect for a summer full of festivals. Layer over your favourite vintage t-shirt to put your own style stamp on this classic look. Don’t forget your favourite 90s sunnies to hide tired eyes!
Skater Street Style
This low key look is perfect for a weekend in the city, at the skate park or the pub. Pair with your trusty old pair of Vans and jeans and you’ve got a great look for day to night.
Already got your vintage Hawaiian shirt but it needs some TLC? Check out our vintage care guide to sewing a button to help you keep your item for longer!