Who should we blame for Hawaiian shirts?

Cowboy practicality crashes into Polynesian colour

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 Who should we blame for Hawaiian shirts?
Elvis wears a shirt by designer (and populariser) Alfred Shaheen in the film Blue Hawaii © Getty

European missionaries arriving in Hawaii in the 19th century were shocked at the ‘nakedness’ of the locals. They forced the islanders to wear western-style, cotton clothing rather than their traditional bark-cloth loincloths decorated with charcoal and berry juices.  

Then when Japanese and Chinese migrants came to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations, they realised there was more money in garments. Alongside locals who had learned to use new-fangled sewing machines, they started to make western-style clothes and eastern-style kimonos.

In 1889, the first Hawaiian ‘shirt maker’, A M Mellis, placed an ad for his made-to-measure shop at 17 Emma St, Honolulu. The modern design incorporated European tailoring, far-eastern and Hawaiian imagery, cowboy practicality and Polynesian colour.

The look was formalised in the 1930s, when Ellery Chun created his ‘Aloha’ shirt to combat falling sales during the Depression, and popularity exploded after World War II.

Americans stationed in the South Pacific, such as future designer Alfred Shaheen, brought home soft, bright-coloured, rayon souvenirs. The teenage revolution of the 1950s cemented the style, followed by the 60s surf boom, 80s cop shows and 90s cocktail craze.

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