The Brightly Colored History of the Hawaiian Shirt

The Brightly Colored History of the Hawaiian Shirt

One light in American history has shined bright during the darkest times.

We are, of course, referring to the Hawaiian shirt. 

Though the precise origins of the floral phenomenon are lost to history, we know that they first started to appear in the late 1920s: very near to the beginning of the Great Depression. 

Local Japanese women living in Hawaii began to use kimono fabric to produce men’s shirts. The colorful clothing achieved some popularity among tourists but became a commercial success when they hit the mainland in the mid-1930s.  

Americans at that time were going through a period of great hardship and anxiety, with many folks out of work and down on their luck. Sound familiar?

People were looking for just about anything to bring some vibrancy and light into their lives.

Another driving factor behind the increased popularity came from inadvertent celebrity endorsements. Visitors to Hawaii in the 1930’s were exclusively wealthy and, as a result, the aloha shirts were being worn back home by the high profile heroes that everyday people looked up to. 

American heroes like three-time Olympic swimming champion and surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku and singer Bing Crosby were soon seen sporting the decorative dress shirts. 

Once the iconic shirt reached stores in the lower 48 states, anyone with a dollar could acquire the prized possession that had previously required an exorbitant trip. A man in an aloha shirt could exude a sense of carefree swagger and indifference to the turbulent times of the era.  

The popularity of Hawaiian shirts swiftly dropped off during WWII, with the garment industry switching gears to supply the war effort. However, when production resumed, service members returning to the mainland from the Pacific made the shirt more popular than ever. 

By the 1960s the shirt had become truly iconic. Many workplaces hosted Aloha Fridays, the precursor to casual Fridays, where everyone donned the flower-patterned pullovers and cut a little loose.

Everyone from Elvis Presley to Richard Nixon was rockin’ a Hawaiian. 

The shirt may have briefly fallen into the realm of corny suburban-dad wear in the 1990s, but over the past 20 years, the resurgence of the flower-powered icon has been huge. 

From college campuses to hipster hangouts, young people are breathing life back into Hawaiian shirts. 

The popularity even has high-end labels like Gucci taking the aloha shirt to new heights, with prints that draw on Japanese designs favored in the garment’s early days.

At a time when we all could use a little light, the Hawaiian shirt is still there for us, after all these years.