Style / April 2018

The History of the Hawaiian Shirt

Novelty item or bold statement? The Hawaiian shirt will always divide opinion but used sensibly and with confidence, there can be a place in your wardrobe for this counter-cultural icon.

Elvis Presley plays a ukelele, wearing a Hawaiian shirt in Blue Hawaii, 1961. Photograph by Paramount Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images.

If menswear has a joker in the pack, it is perhaps the Hawaiian shirt. Loud, sometimes verging on raucous, it embodies everything that sophisticated men’s dressing is meant to reject: bright colours, loose fits and wild patterns. That perhaps makes every shirt produced by Tori Richard, Hawaii’s most esteemed shirtmaker, something of a gamble. With some pay-off: one Tori Richard shirt, with a wave pattern akin to a Japanese woodcut print, has sold more than 500,000 units over 20 years and become so well-known that it has appeared on a series of credit cards for a Hawaiian bank.

Functionally speaking, of course, the aloha shirt – as it’s colloquially known – is ideal for the humid climates in which it is typically worn, that disruptive pattern even perhaps helping to disguise the occasional sweat patch. But stylistically, it belongs to a world of its own. “For some, the aloha shirt will always be a novelty item or a kind of costume,” says Tori Richard CEO and President Josh Feldman. “For others it’s part of a regional identity — obviously the aloha shirt is worn in Hawaii, but you also find it widely worn in Florida and in Japan, for instance, as part of that culture by which the Japanese dress more American than Americans. And for others it’s a bold statement. Sure, it’s an extrovert act, even in Hawaii. But there’s a counter-cultural aspect to wearing the aloha shirt. It says that you just don’t give a shit what people think.”

That is certainly how the trope of the aloha shirt is used in popular culture. On the one hand there is the wearing of the shirt to fit in, perhaps as an expression of group identity, maybe even of positivity and open spirit: think of George Clooney in The Descendants (which Tori Richard outfitted), Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I., and, of course, Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii. But, take the Hawaiian shirt out of Hawaii and on the other hand is something much darker — it’s clothing as passive-aggression, fabric as fuck-you. It’s Robert de Niro in Cape Fear, Al Pacino in Scarface, Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity, John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, and Tony Curtis in, well, just about every publicity shot he did. Even as worn by Jim Carrey in the Ace Ventura movies, it seems to suggest a potentially threatening mania.

Contributor

Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.

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