For over half a century, the Aloha shirt has been Hawaii’s most enduring and visible greeter and ambassador. Like a flower lei, the Aloha shirt is worn as a statement of one’s love for, and connection to, a most special place.
I find it quite amazing that a piece of clothing – a very simple shirt with vivid patterns or pictures and, if you’re lucky, coconut shell buttons – can have more lore, history and anecdotes surrounding it than many a small country. The roots of the Aloha shirt date back to the early 1930s and to the famed surfer, Olympic gold-medal swimmer, King Kamehameha descendant and “Ambassador of Aloha”, Duke Kahanamoku. Local beach boys of the day, looking for something unique to wear, decided to have sport shirts made from colorful Japanese kimono material.
Duke soon noticed that surfers would wear these shirts with the shirt tails hanging out. Why not make the shirts with the tails already cut off, he thought, so they could be worn neatly outside of trousers? Soon, the “Duke” shirt was born. In 1937, a local clothier signed Duke to a contract. The label on the shirts read, “Designed by Duke Kahanamoku, world-champion swimmer, made in the Hawaiian Islands”. Duke got thirty-five cents for every dozen shirts sold!
Visitors to Hawaii also quickly discovered the colorful shirts. The first thing tourists would do upon arriving in Waikiki would be to buy this bright, comfortable Aloha wear – adorned with flowers, leis, ukuleles, Diamond Head and the Aloha Tower. Several small local manufacturers began making what one called “Aloha shirts“ and soon followed the dreaded matching Mu’ Mu’s for the ladies.
Fine artists and fashion designers were caught up in the beauty and color of the shirts and in the stories they could tell. Suddenly it wasn’t just visitors to Hawaii wearing Aloha shirts. The shirts had become fashionable all over the world!
Realizing the allure of both Duke Kahanamoku himself and Aloha shirts, a national clothing manufacturer signed him up to be the spokesman for a line of Aloha wear. The kickoff promotional party was held at the world-renowned Stork Club in New York City during fashion week. Before long, Duke was wearing Aloha shirts to fancy Manhattan soirees, power meetings in Washington and on television programs nationwide.
Even today, every Friday in Hawaii is termed “Aloha Friday” and men wear Aloha shirts to work as a symbol of their devotion to the culture of Aloha - Similar to our “casual Friday” on the mainland, but much more festive! I will leave you with aquote from Duke himself:
“In Hawaii we greet friends, loved ones and strangers alike with Aloha, which means with love. Aloha is the key word to the universal spirit of real hospitality, which makes Hawaii renowned as the world’s center of understanding, tolerance and fellowship. Try meeting or leaving people with Aloha. You’ll be surprised by their reaction. I believe it and it is my creed. Aloha to you,”