The Aloha Shirt

The following is an article from Uncle John's Triumphant 20th Anniversary Bathroom Reader.

It seems like almost everyone owns a Hawaiian shirt or two -Uncle John owns seven that he wears in colorful rotation, It turns out that their history is every bit as colorful as the materials they’re masse from.


Not long after he graduated from Yale in 1931 with an economics degree, 22-year-old Ellery J. Chun was summoned to Honolulu by his father, Chun Kam Chow. The family owned a dry good store in the city, and business was way off -the entire United States was mired in the Great Depression, and the store was in trouble. He needed his son's help to keep the business afloat.

Chun must have been paying attention in his economics classes, because he came up with some ideas that helped put the store on more solid footing. In the past the store had catered to the Chinese community -much of the store’s inventory was imported directly from China. But Chun thought the business would be more profitable if it expanded its selection to appeal to a broader market. But what kind of goods should they offer?


Chun got the idea for one of his most successful products just by looking out the store’s front window. There was a tailor shop next door, and it was common to see local kids in colorful shirts leading sailors, tourists, and other visitors from the mainland into the shop. But what were they shopping for?

Chun inquired next door and learned that the visitors were there to order colorful shirts just like the homemade ones the kids were wearing. In the 1930s, Hawaii still had a large agrarian economy, and tens of thousands of immigrants from China, Japan, the Philippines, and other countries had come to Hawaii to work on the sugar cane and pineapple plantations. Wages were low, so many laborers who had tailoring skills supplemented their incomes by sewing clothing at night, often using colorful printed fabrics sent to them by relatives back home in China or Japan. Most of the work clothes, kimonos, and other garments were made for sale, but the leftover scraps were used to make clothes for the family. A lot of kids ended up with colorful shirts made from scraps of kimono fabric, sparking a local fad among teenagers that was now spreading to tourists.


Chun hired the tailor to sew some ready-to-wear shirts that he could stock in his store for people who didn’t want to go to the time and expense of having them custom-made. The earliest shirts had a distinctly Japanese appearance, Chun told the Atlanta Journal Constitution in 1976: "There was no authentic Hawaiian material in those days, so I bought the most brilliant and gaudy Japanese kimono material, designed the shirts, and had the tailor make a few dozen colorful shortsleeved shirts, which I displayed in the window with the sign, 'Hawaiian shirts.' And they sold remarkably well."

It didn’t take long for Chun’s Japanese Hawaiian shirts to take on a more distinctly Hawaiian feel. His sister, Ethel Lum, started designing shirts with pineapples, palm trees, tropical flowers, exotic birds, ukuleles, and other motifs associated with the islands.


The new shirts, priced at as little as 95¢ apiece, sold even better than the Japanese-style shirts had, and in the years that followed, sales increased dramatically as Hawaii became an ever more popular and accessible tourist destination. In 1935 Pan American World Airlines began offering China Clipper service to Hawaii, linking it to the U.S. mainland by air for the first time. Now the islands were only an 18-hour flight away from the West Coast, instead of six days by ocean liner.

It’s probably not a stretch to say that as tourism helped spur sale of Hawaiian shirts, so too did Hawaiian shirts help to spur the tourist trade. When people came home from vacationing in Hawaii, their loud shirts attracted a lot of attention and curiosity about the islands. The shirts must have pulled more than a few people out to Hawaii to visit the place and -of course- buy some of the shirts for themselves. What did Guam, Samoa, or the Gilbert islands have to compare with that?


By 1940 it was clear that Hawaiian shirts were much more than just a passing fad. The Hawaiian garment industry, which in the past had been geared toward providing clothing for plantation workers, was evolving into a tourist-oriented export business and growing very rapidly.

(Image credit: rjones0856)

Hawaiian shirts could be seen just about everywhere on the islands -except on the backs of Hawaiians themselves. Their kids still wore them, of course, but everyone else saw the loud shirts as being strictly for the tourist trade, something not really authentically Hawaiian at all. You were about as likely to see a real Hawaiian wearing one as you were to see a New Yorker wearing an I ♥ NY shirt.


So how did made-up Hawaiian shirts finally come to be seen as a genuine Hawaiian article? It was a process that took more than a decade …and one that began on the morning of December 7, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, pulling the U.S. into World War II.

The war disrupted trade between the islands and the rest of the world, forcing Hawaiians to buy products manufactured locally, including the lowly Hawaiian shirt. It also helped to set the stage for Hawaii becoming an even bigger tourist destination after the war than it had been before. Many GIs passing through Hawaii on their way to and from the war in the Pacific, and their brief exposure to the islands made them eager to return once the war ended.

(Image credit: Flickr user Brian Zalewski)

The soldiers and sailors bought a lot of Hawaiian shirts as they passed through, of course -years of wearing dull khaki and olive drab uniforms made them hungry for all the color they could get while on shore leave. As a result, demand for Hawaiian shirts was even greater after the war than it had been during the war. The garment industry was beginning to emerge as a major segment of the Hawaiian economy.


Whether the traditionalists liked it or not, by the late 1940s Hawaiian shirts had become synonymous with the Hawaiian Islands. Even Hawaiians were wearing them …but still only in their free time. When people in Hawaii went to the office or met socially, they continued to wear business suits, ordinary dresses, and sport coats and slacks. People still took their fashion cues from the mainland, so business meetings and cocktail parties in Honolulu didn’t look all that different from ones in Portland, Oregon, or Madison, Wisconsin.


President Harry Truman and Staff.

Have you ever tried to wear a business suit in the humid, tropical heat of the Hawaiian Islands? It’s not easy, and if you spend more than a few minutes outside of an air-conditioned office it isn’t very pretty, either. Even before World War II, various community and business leaders had lobbied to relax workplace dress codes to bring them in line with the climate, but the efforts were unsuccessful.

Things didn’t begin to change until 1947, when the desire to sweat less at work merged with two other goals: celebrating Hawaiian spirit and supporting local industry. That was the year that the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce and other organizations established "Aloha Week," a celebration of authentic and faux Hawaiian traditions. Aloha Week began in late October and, despite its name, lasted nearly a month. Office workers, including even bankers and lawyers, were given permission and indeed were strongly encouraged to wear their Hawaiian shirts and muumuus to work. And 1947 was also the year that city and county employees were granted the right to wear Hawaiian shirts any time they wanted, even with “tails worn outside the trousers.”

The door to full fashion acceptance had opened a crack, and further progress came quickly. Aloha Week was followed by Aloha Wednesdays, Aloha Fridays (the inspiration for "casual Fridays" on the mainland), and Aloha Summers. Which begged the question- now that people were wearing their Hawaiian shirts on Wednesdays and Friday and during Aloha Week and Aloha Summer, why not just allow them all the time? Today the Hawaiian shirt is the business suit of the Hawaiian Islands.


…So whatever happened to Ellery J. Chun, the guy who helped turn a homegrown fad into Hawaii’s third largest export? Did he become the Bill Gates of Hawaiian shirts? Not even close -if you’re used to thinking of Hawaiian shirts as "aloha shirts," you have him to thank for that: Chun trademarked that name in 1937. But he got out of the business not too long afterward and went into banking instead, rising to the rank of vice president before retiring in 1966. He died in 2000. His descendants probably wished they had saved more of his and his sister’s early shirts: Today the rarest, most prized examples of his 95¢ shirts are framed like artwork and sell at auction for more than $10,000 apiece.


This article was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Triumphant 20th Anniversary Bathroom Reader. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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