• History Of Hawaiian Shirts

History Of Hawaiian Shirts

Last update: 2023-10-07

Hawaiian shirts, sometimes known as aloha shirts, are a type of casual shirt originating in Hawaii that are known for their bright, bold patterns and colors. While the origins of Hawaiian shirts can be traced back centuries, they did not gain widespread popularity until the 1930s and 40s. Since then, Hawaiian shirts have become ingrained in pop culture and remain a staple of casual summer fashion.

Early Origins in the Pacific

The roots of Hawaiian shirts can be traced back to simple tunics made from tapa cloth that were worn by native Hawaiians before contact with Europeans. Tapa was a barkcloth made by pounding the inner bark of certain trees into thin sheets that could be dyed with natural plant dyes and decorated with simple patterns. These early Hawaiian garments were quite different from the boldly patterned shirts we know today, but they marked the beginnings of the Hawaiian shirt tradition.

Waiter in Hawaiian shirt holding tray of tropical drinks

As contact increased between Hawaii and the outside world in the 1800s, local dress began incorporating foreign influences. Immigrant plantation workers from Asia brought over their own traditional shirts, often made from brightly colored silk or cotton. Meanwhile, European and American sailors introduced more tailored shirts. The fusion of these diverse clothing styles helped give rise to early proto-Hawaiian shirts.

Rise of the Aloha Shirt in the 1930s

The Hawaiian shirt as we know it today arose in Honolulu in the 1930s. With the growing tourism industry in Hawaii, local entrepreneurs sought to create more appealing clothing for visitors. They began producing shirts with Hawaiian motifs and floral prints, often made from rayon or other comfortable, lightweight fabrics. Two Hawaiian brands, Musashiya and Surfriders, became pioneers in the Hawaiian shirt industry during this decade.

The Aloha Week festival, held in Honolulu in 1946, helped cement the Hawaiian shirt as a cultural symbol. Event coordinators encouraged men to wear Hawaiian shirts as a show of Hawaiian pride, kickstarting a trend. Locals embraced the festive shirts as business attire that was still relaxed and cool for the islands' climate.

Paramount Pictures film with Elvis Presley and Suzanna Leigh centre top

Popular Hollywood films and musicals like Blue Hawaii also exposed mainland American audiences to the Hawaiian shirt starting in the late 1930s. Soon celebrities like Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and Montgomery Clift were photographed wearing the shirts, sparking demand.

Mass Popularity from the 1940s-60s

The Hawaiian shirt exploded in popularity worldwide following World War II. Thousands of military personnel were stationed in Hawaii during the war and became enamored with the comfortable, casual shirts. They brought the shirts home with them when they returned stateside, spreading the style across the country.

More American tourists also flocked to Hawaii as leisure travel increased in the postwar years. Visitors inevitably wanted to take home a Hawaiian shirt as a vacation souvenir. To meet the demand, dozens of Hawaiian shirt manufacturers emerged, including industry leaders like Kamehameha, Reyn Spooner, and Kahala.

In 1956, the Magnum P.I. character Thomas Magnum famously wore Hawaiian shirts in the popular television series, further ingraining them in American pop culture. Soon celebrities like Elvis Presley, Montgomery Clift, Bing Cosby, and even President Harry Truman were photographed wearing the shirts.


The 1960s and 70s saw Hawaiian shirts adopted by the surf, skate, and rockabilly subcultures. Their explosion into mainstream American fashion solidified Hawaiian shirts as a summer staple. Brands diversified their offerings with a wide array of colors and prints to suit different tastes.

Modern Hawaiian Shirts

While Hawaiian shirts waned somewhat in popularity in the 1980s and 90s, they came back into fashion in the early 2000s. Contemporary designers have put modern spins on the Hawaiian shirt using bold graphic prints, slimmer cuts, and unconventional materials like silk or linen. However, many classic Hawaiian shirt brands like Tori Richard and Kahala still produce vintage-inspired designs.

Man by the sea

In Hawaii, aloha shirts remain ingrained as business attire that honors local culture. More broadly, they still evoke a relaxed, beachy vibe associated with Hawaiian vacations and luaus. As leisure travel resumes after COVID-19 declines, Hawaiian shirts are likely to retain their status as iconic souvenirs and summer fashion statements. After over a century of evolution, the Hawaiian shirt remains an enduring symbol of the Islands' vibrant culture and lifestyle.


In summary, the history of Hawaiian shirts reaches back centuries to early Hawaiian tunics but did not take shape as the distinctive style we know today until the 1930s. The shirts rose to worldwide popularity between the 1940s and 1960s thanks to exposure from Hollywood, tourists, and military personnel. While falling slightly out of mainstream fashion in the ensuing decades, Hawaiian shirts have retained their iconic association with Hawaiian culture and summer relaxation.

After over a hundred years of evolution, aloha shirts remain deeply intertwined with Island identity and continue to serve as fashionable summer wear. Their bold colors and prints will likely ensure Hawaiian shirts remain popular for generations to come.

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