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 inThe Descendants(which Tori Richard outfitted), Tom Selleck inMagnum, P.I., and, of course, Elvis Presley inBlue 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 inCape Fear, Al Pacino inScarface, Frank Sinatra inFrom Here to Eternity, John Travolta inPulp Fiction, and Tony Curtis in, well, just about every publicity shot he did. Even as worn by Jim Carrey in theAce Venturamovies, it seems to suggest a potentially threatening mania.


    June 2020


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