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The Origins of Aloha Style

model wearing riz boardshorts burgh shorts in endangered garden print  

“Real men wear flowers” is a favourite mantra of ours here at Sunny Cove Studios, and the development of our signature “British-Hawaiian style” gives us a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the natural world and weave the themes of endangered British wild flowers, insects, and marine flora and fauna into our print designs.  Floral prints on menswear often polarizes opinion, however the Aloha style has a fascinating history and, when done well, conveys the romantic allure of laid-back island living like nothing else.

a selection of riz boardshorts men's swim shorts on a rail at the world bellyboarding championships

Aloha shirts, which preceded the style of patterned and floral prints that eventually found their way onto swimwear, are the result of the combination of five different cultures on the Hawaiian Islands in the first half of the 20th Century; the first commercially produced aloha shirts were a Filipino style shirt sold to mainland American visitors, having been made in Hawaii by Chinese tailors, using Japanese printed fabrics.

Pre-contact Hawaiians wore Kapa (known as Tapa throughout the rest of Polynesia), a bark cloth worn as a loincloth or short skirt until the arrival of Captain Cook.  Cook’s crew wore loose, long sleeved, square cut frock shirts and the design was adopted by the local Hawaiians who produced their own versions in patterned Kapa cloth.  As the Hawaiian Islands were colonised in the 1800s a great number of American owned sugar cane and pineapple plantations were established and the owners sought cheap labour by recruiting from Western Pacific nations such as Japan, China, Korea and the Philippines, creating a melting pot of Polynesian, Asian and Western cultures in the centre of the Pacific Ocean.  Many plantation workers wore long sleeved frock shirts made from a heavy plaid cotton imported from Europe that they called palaka and which was popular because of it’s hard wearing nature.  This same fabric was used to produce the first pairs of custom boardshorts for surfing thanks to these characteristics.  Filipino labourers often wore a traditional style of shirt known as "barong tagalog", which was square cut and worn untucked which was very much at odds with accepted western fashion sensibilities. 

Aloha style as we know it now developed around the 1920s, most likely originating in 1926 when a student at the University of Hawaii named Gordon Young had some shirts made; he visited a Chinese tailor and selected a printed Japanese crepe fabric normally used to make kimonos for little girls, and ordered the shirts square cut (rather than with tails) so that he could wear them outside of his trousers.  Young went on to attend the University of Washington and took a large supply of his shirts with him, which would have proved quite a talking point in the late 1920s. 

By the mid 1930s there were several shirt-makers and outfitters in Honolulu making Aloha shirts, including Japanese tailor Koichiro Miyamoto (known as Musa-Shiya the Shirtmaker) and Ellery Chun who trademarked the term “aloha shirt” in 1936.  Chun had returned from Yale with a degree in economics and began working for the family business, King-Smith Clothiers.  Chun began offering ready made shirts to visitors, as many of the local beach boys were wearing shirts made from printed Japanese fabrics and taking tourists to tailors so that they could have shirts made as souvenirs.  His sister Ethel created the tropical designs and the shirts were hung in the store’s window under a sign advertising them as “Hawaiian Aloha Shirts”.   Rube Hauseman also made early Aloha shirts and his Waikiki beachboy friends often wore them on nights out to the Rathskellar Bar, a popular nightspot for visiting celebrities, giving rise to the story that Aloha shirts were originally known as Rathskellar shirts.

a wall of aloha shirts at the bishop museum in hawaii, by alfred shaheen

Part of the collection of Aloha shirts at Hawaii's Bishop Museum.  Photo:  Alfred Shaheen 

Initially these shirts had all used traditional Japanese fabrics, however by the late 1930s fabric was being printed on Hawaii specifically for this purpose, substituting Japanese and Asian elements for more stereotypically Hawaiian subjects such as palm trees, hibiscus flowers, fish and outrigger canoes.  Originally marketed primarily to tourists, the massive number of American military personnel stationed on or taking R&R in Hawaii during World War II caused the popularity of Aloha shirts to boom as servicemen turned to them as a bright alternative to their uniforms and taking them back to the mainland as souvenirs.  Soon they were being mass-produced to meet demand, with entrepreneurs such as Alfred Shaheen opening up factories and employing textile designers to produce cohesive patterns that were more artistic than the “hash” shirts of random lino-block printed patterns that had been common until then.  Shaheen used a heavy rayon fabric that absorbed the dyes and produced vivid colours, and his shirts proved popular with post war tourists as well as with stars of the 1950s and 60s such as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift, not to mention several US presidents. 

surfer matt smith underwater in the maldives wearing a pair of riz boardshorts

In 1965 Aloha Friday was introduced as a result of “Operation Liberation” (a campaign by the Hawaiian Fashion Guild to allow less formal business attire to be worn on Fridays from Lei Day, May 1st, through the hot and humid summer months when traditional business attire simply wasn’t comfortable), and this soon spread to the mainland becoming what we know today as “Dress-down Fridays”.  Aloha shirt are now accepted business attire in Hawaii, however Hawaiians have tended to prefer subtle colours and patterns as opposed to the bold, colourful shirts produced for the tourist market – to the extent that several companies made shirts using the fabric “inside out” so as to mute the vibrancy of the colours. 

“We as a population actually don’t wear them as much as we all used to, and it’s interesting to see how people in places like Europe are now starting to be influenced by the colorful history as they interpret our vintage Hawaiian prints.”

Dale Hope, Author, The Aloha Shirt – Spirit of the Islands

Traditional Aloha patterns can be incredibly beautiful, despite the crimes against fashion that have been committed in their name in the past.  When designing our latest 2016 collection we turned for inspiration to the traditional Japanese prints that were used in the original Hawaiian shirts of the 1920s and 1930s, featuring British seaweeds and wave prints that draw on the famous works of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.  We’re looking forward to sharing the entire collection with you next month, but until then here's a sneak peak at one of the prints:

close-up of seaweed print on 2016 season riz boardshorts

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