• Otter Views: Aloha Shirt Weather

    July 15 will be the aloha shirt’s 79th anniversary.

    Monday night is when I write these, so Monday’s lingering warmth and clarity prompted this week’s topic. I realize that when the paper comes out Friday the town could again be fog-shrouded, drizzly and gray. Still, we can pretend.

    But back to Monday. The morning was so toasty and sunny, the sky so cloudlessly blue, I had to rifle through my closet for an aloha shirt. I finally found a wrinkled rayon “silkie” pressed against the wall at the very back, shoved in there by parkas, lumberjack shirts, wool coats and beefy sweatshirts. It looked relieved to get out.

    A prolonged drawer search produced a pair of walking shorts, and a sweep of the closet carpet unearthed a serviceable pair of rubber slippers. Thus attired, I set out to enjoy a rare PG summer day of aloha shirt weather.

    Few garments feel as languid and weightless as the classic Hawaiian silkie. If you could weave a fabric from sunlit air, it might feel this warm and whispery, floating over your skin like a passing cloud. It’s the only shirt that can actually soothe a sun burn.

    Fastening the shirt’s coconut buttons got me wondering how the whole aloha shirt thing got started. In 2015, most American closets and millions of others world-wide house at least one “aloha” shirt or Hawaiian-themed garment, even if only for novelty wear. There are floral prints, surf prints, Asian motifs, car and cocktail patterns and regional variations beyond number. Most are garish and colorful.

    Its global ubiquity ranks the aloha shirt among a handful of goods, people and practices that originated in Hawaii and then “crossed over” to the wider world. It’s a short list: surfing, the steel guitar, the shaka sign, POGs, graduation leis, and Jake Shimabukuro. (The ukulele, alas, came from Portugal.)

    My aloha shirt research led me back to Honolulu of the late 1920s, when young Jazz Age hipsters rebelled against the starchy, buttoned-up, post-missionary fashions of the day. The instigator was a Samoan student whose parents had sent him to Honolulu’s Punahou School. The parents owned a dry goods store in Samoa that carried bold, bright floral yardage used for sari-like “pareu” wraps.

    As a prank, the student sent for a bolt of his parents’ pareu fabric and had it tailored into loose-fitting short-sleeved shirts for him and his friends. They wore the resulting ensembles to a “tea dance,” scandalized their elders, and started a fashion trend.

    As sometimes happens, even a promising trend may need more than one push to take hold. Chotaro Miyamoto, the Japanese tailor who fashioned the original pareu shirts, should by rights be the “father of the aloha shirt.” But once the bolt of pareu fabric was used up, Miyamoto had nothing else island-themed to replace it. So he cut and sewed custom shirts from the exotic silks and cottons of the Orient.

    Soon the islands were awash in shirts emblazoned with Korean scenery, flowers and plants; Japanese koi fish, Samurai horses, and views of Mount Fuji; Chinese junks, Buddhist pagodas, and flying dragons. Indonesia sent handsome batik fabrics, and from the Philippines came the bayau (friend) shirt, whose extra-long tails could be knotted across the midriff. Hollywood starlets loved them.

    But while all of these were made in Hawaii, the first truly “Hawaiian” shirt didn’t appear until 1933. The motivator then was a Yale-educated Chinese haberdasher named Ellery Chun whose “Waikiki” clothiers had fallen on hard times.

    “We were in the midst of the Depression and business was lagging,” Chun told the Atlanta Journal in 1976. “I was thinking seriously of new ideas for leisure wear. There was no authentic Hawaiian material in those days, so I bought the most brilliant and gaudy Japanese kimono material and had a tailor make a few dozen colorful, short-sleeved shirts. I displayed those in the window with the sign: “Hawaiian shirts.”

    The shirts fared better than their name, and by 1936 Chun was labeling his wares “aloha shirts.” More importantly, he commissioned his sister Ethel to create original island-themed designs for the shirts. Soon Waikiki surfers, flying fish, hula maidens, outrigger canoes and art-deco ocean liners were leaping from her pen onto colorful textiles.

    On July 15, 1936, Ellery Chun registered his “Aloha” trademark with Hawaii’s territorial government. The submittal included a sketch of a wind-bent palm tree and the words: “Styled in Hawaii, Made in Hawaii.” Find a shirt with that label today, and you’ll be a thousandaire.

    Printed on silk, rayon, cotton and challis, Ellery and Ethel Chun’s bold designs kick-started a fashion boom that would send millions of bright, colorful, Hawaiian-themed “aloha shirts” dancing into the closets of an otherwise somber world.

    July 15th will be the aloha shirt’s 79th anniversary. Fog permitting, I’ll wear mine.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on July 10, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views


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