Aloha Shirt vs Hawaiian Shirt

aloha shirt vs hawaiian shirt

Some garments are more than a stitch in time. Take the aloha shirt. For decades since its appearance, it’s been more than Hawai'i’s three-dimensional postcard or ambassador. Iconic and well-loved, the aloha shirt occupies a special place in many people’s wardrobes, hearts and collections.

In Hawai'i, the aloha shirt it’s a staple and celebration of who we are. The aloha shirt is the result of the immense tradition, migration, history and cultural exchange that happened and still takes place throughout our islands.

Who Invented the Aloha Shirt?

No one person has the claim to fame for inventing the aloha shirt.
The aloha shirt has multi-ethnic beginnings and most historians tend to agree that it all began when tailors in Hawai'i started making shirts out of kimono fabric.

There’s even a story about Gordon Young, a university student, who had his mother’s dressmaker sew him shirts from cotton cloth used for yukata (a summer kimono or bathrobe) in the early 1920s and these shirts were dubbed the “pre-aloha” shirt.

Vintage Aloha Shirt Designers

Among the most notable first designers of the vintage aloha shirts were Ellery Chun of King-Smith Clothiers and Kiochiro Miyamoto of Musa-Shiya Shoten. 

ellery chun and kiochiro miyamoto_vintage aloha shirtEllery Chun (L) and Kiochiro Miyamoto (R)

Ellery is credited with popularizing the aloha shirt. He returned to Hawai'i after graduating from Yale University to manage his family’s dry good store in Honolulu. After noticing local teens wearing shirts made from rayon and colorful barong tagalog shirts, Ellery began selling ready-to-wear shirts made from kimono material.

Kiochiro would come up with the clever marketing idea of calling such shirts aloha shirts. An advertisement he ran in 1935 was the first documented use of the term aloha shirts. However, Ellery is credited for trademarking aloha shirts a year later.

The Evolution of the Aloha Shirt in Hawai'i

At first, aloha shirts were marketed for tourists to take home as fond souvenirs of their time throughout the islands. But it didn’t take long for aloha shirts to evolve into something larger and something completely local, with Hawai'i residents also adopting the garment and its aloha spirit.

president truman in aloha shirt photo

President Truman (second row, center), wearing a popular aloha shirt on vacation in Florida November, 1946.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/National Archives and Records Administration/Office of Presidential Libraries/Harry S. Truman Library

 

“Over the decades, tropical island style life has influenced the design of the aloha shirt through different trend and themes, with the next and new generations expressing their adaptations of capturing the vivid spirit of the islands,” said Dale Hope, Western Aloha’s Art Director and author of The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands.

In the early days, the Japanese textile companies hand-printed the textile prints originally with Japanese themes, Japanese flowers, bamboo, little characterized wood boats floating down a river with Mt. Fuji and bamboo forests in their designs. Then they received images from the monthly magazine like Paradise of the Pacific, and they started to substitute images with canoes, Diamond Head, surfing, catamarans, beach boys, ukulele, lūʻau, Hawai'i fish and island flowers for the inspiration for their designs. These themes carried through the 1950s and early ’60s. In the ’70s, a new breed of garment manufacturer emerged.

David Rochlen - a world-class surfer, U.S. Marine in WWII, famous Santa Monica lifeguard and stunt diver who portrayed Captain Nemo in Walt Disney's 1954 motion picture version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - was probably the most notable. David invented the distinctive surf wear known as Jams and founded Surf Line Hawaii in 1964. The California Surf brands like Hang Ten, Ocean Pacific, and Off Shore were all influenced with the new wave of prints, colors and styles made for a younger generation of surf inspired customers.”

Aloha shirts have continued to remain popular, especially in Hawai'i.

Basically, the shirts, unlike a blue oxford shirt, make your heart smile, and take you on a vacation to a spot you like to visit. And back in the day, if you were lucky enough to take the SS Lurline to Honolulu, they captured the beauty of the islands that you were experiencing and falling in love with,” Dale said. “Wearing one was a subtle statement that you were enamored by this island style lifestyle and you were a new member of the club.”

Aloha Shirt vs Hawaiian Shirt 

western aloha alenuihaha aloha shirt

Western Aloha Alenuihaha Aloha Shirt

 

So, what is a Hawaiian shirt?
This question is regularly asked by well-intended people, usually those who don’t live in Hawai'i and with a flawed understanding of the use of Hawaiian.

In Hawai'i, we don’t call those loose-fitting, collared shirts made of colorfully printed fabric with images reflective of the islands or our lifestyle Hawaiian shirts. We call them aloha shirts. Hawaiian is a people and culture.

Though most people refer to the indigenous or native people of Hawai'i as Hawaiians, it’s common to these people to call themselves kānaka — a specific terminology that acknowledges their ancestral and genealogical connection to this place when it was an independent kingdom.

In Hawai'i, we don’t adhere to the practice of marking identity according to place of residence, such as Californian, New Yorker and MidWesterner. Just because you live in Hawai'i doesn’t mean you can call yourself or your things Hawaiian. That right and respect belongs to the indigenous or native people of Hawai'i.

 

People associate the floral brighter prints from the islands with sun, surf and soft trade winds, and tropical beaches and fresh fruits etc., shirts that capture the dreamy lifestyle we live with, often calling them Hawaiian shirts.” 
Dale Hope
Western Aloha Art Director

Author, The Aloha Shirt : Spirit Of The Islands

“People associate the floral brighter prints from the islands with sun, surf and soft trade winds, and tropical beaches and fresh fruits etc., shirts that capture the dreamy lifestyle we live with, often calling them Hawaiian shirts,” Dale said. “You may say that over the years they started as aloha shirts from Hawai'i, and over years, the popular understanding of the name of the unusual shirts became known as shirts that represent the place Hawai'i for all its desirable attributes.”

dale hope aloha shirt expert

Dale Hope, Western Aloha Art Director and
Author, The Aloha Shirt : Spirit Of The Islands
Image © Honolulu Star Advertiser

 
While the name Hawaiian shirts has been adopted by some people for decades, it’s just not PC today. Unless you are a Hawaiian, or kānaka, making shirts. The good news is there are several amazing Hawaiian designers elevating and creating beautiful aloha shirts. Google Sig Zane or Manaola. 

Aloha Shirt Popularity

When it comes to aloha shirts, there’s pretty much one for everyone.

Thanks to the blockbuster 2022 Elvis movie, fans old and new are rushing to watch Blue Hawaii, Girls, Girls, Girls and Paradise Hawaiian Style. With that, the Aloha Shirt is experiencing a resurgence of popularity around the globe.

Elvis Presley wearing an aloha shirt in the movie Blue Hawaii

 

“There are themes that hit everyone’s passions with an infinite amount of themed shirts in the world today,” Dale said. He would know. Dale grew up in and inherited his parents’ clothing business, as well as bought and served as creative director of the legendary Kahala label.

While Dale owns many hundreds of shirts, his favorite remains one his dad made. “It had beach boys on it dancing the hula and playing ukulele in their makaha turquoise swim trunks that the beach boys at the Royal Hawaii Hotel wore, that went over their knees as aunties did the hula on the beach. It was the scene that I grew up with on the beach at Waikiki,” he said.

What excites Dale about aloha shirts today are the mix of aloha shirts Western Aloha is creating and making in small quantities. For example, Western Aloha is paying tribute to legendary textile designer and artist John “Keoni” Meigs and featuring the incredible art of Mayumi Oda.

"John ‘Keoni’ Meigs is considered to be one of the leading artists that created over 300 textile designs that truly captured the spirit of the islands and took those prints to the West. We are the only shirt maker allowed to make shirts with his designs in America."
Dale Hope

John ‘Keoni’ Meigs is considered to be one of the leading artists that created over 300 textile designs that truly captured the spirit of the islands and took those prints to the West, where they were manufactured by companies coast to coast including Hawai'i. His art is timeless and represents the spirit of the golden era of the aloha shirt and we are working with his designs now at Western Aloha. We are the only shirt maker allowed to make shirts with his designs in America,” Dale said.

john keoni meigs artwork shirt_western aloha

Western Aloha's Keoni's Catch Aloha Shirt
featuring artwork by John 'Keoni' Meigs.

 

“I also love Mayumi Oda’s shirts. They capture an artist’s spirit that is genuine and really well executed with an Asian/Hawai'i style and themes. It’s an East meets West original style that I have grown to appreciate, and they have become my favorite modern day shirts today. She is a most accomplished woman, artist and activist, and wearing a shirt that she has created is exceptionally special for me.”

Watch our video mini documentary with Artist, Mayumi Oda