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On their recent Hawaii vacation, my folks really enjoyed going to the Hilo Hattie store in Lihue, Kauai. Boasting Hawaii’s largest selection of Hawaiian fashion, gifts and aloha wear; it’s a treat for visitors!
That got me thinking about Aloha shirts. I mean, where else in the world is there a shirt that so exemplifies a people and place? The Aloha shirt perfectly captures the spirit of these islands and her people. As souvenirs they can’t be beat; typically they bring a smile to someone’s face but they definitely make one think of Hawaii, its awe-inspiring beauty and laid-back lifestyle.
Aloha shirts have been around for 50 years. According to Tommy Holmes, from the forward of the book The Aloha Shirt, “There are well-documented stores from the pre-World War II years of teenagers buying wonderful, finely printed Kabe crepe material, imported from Japan, in the dry-goods stores of downtown Honolulu. These young men had their mothers sew beautiful shirts from the fabric. That tradition of beautifully sewn printed shirts spread from the Asian dry-goods merchants and home-sewers to the tailors and dress-makers of Hawaii, creating a new style of colorful clothing.”
In the 1920s and 30s, Hawaii was bustling with growth. Newly-built extravagant hotels and cruise ships introduced travelers to these remote islands. Visitors were captivated by Hawaii’s unique culture: hula, the ukulele, swaying coco palms, surfers and white sandy beaches all conspired to steal their hearts.
Local artists, capturing these idyllic images, created printed cloth bearing various images like flowers, canoes, birds and fish. In Waikiki, Ellery Chun, owner of King-Smith Clothiers, sold the shirts his sister designed. Legend tells us that Chun and a salesperson from the Honolulu Advertiser coined the phrase “aloha shirt” in a brain storming session. In July of 1936, Chun registered the “Aloha” name and began advertising in the now defunct Honolulu Advertiser newspaper.
“Aloha shirts put Hawaii on the map,” says renowned fabric designer John “King Keoni” Meigs. “The first thing people did when they arrived was to make a beeline for a department store to buy one.” Indeed they still do, as we are living proof!