By Blair Jackson | Photos by Sandor Nagyszalanczy, Joey Lusterman, and Jim Beloff | FROM THE WINTER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
I bought my first Hawaiian shirts at a thrift shop in Kansas City, Missouri, of all places, during a cross-country driving trip from California to New York in the summer of 1977.
Everything I knew about Hawaii and Hawaiian music, which wasn’t much, I’d learned the previous year after picking up Ry Cooder’s revelatory Chicken Skin Music album. Amid some of his obscure but reliable old R&B picks and ventures into Tex-Mex with the great accordionist Flaco Jimenez, there was a pair of Hawaiian-sounding tunes—“Chlo’e” and “Yellow Roses,” the first featuring a Hawaiian guitarist named Atta Isaacs, the second Gabby Pahinui on steel guitar—and I fell in love with that sound. It also spurred me to buy an album that Cooder had played on and produced a year earlier called The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band, my first real exposure to slack key and traditional Hawaiian music. When Cooder played in San Francisco in December 1976 he wore a colorful Hawaiian-print shirt, if I recall correctly, and his look and the casual vibe of the Gabby album no doubt influenced me to pick up those first “aloha shirts,” as they are commonly called.
My love of Hawaiian music and aloha shirts was cemented when I honeymooned on Kauai in 1981. I remember picking up a couple at a funky thrift store a few miles outside of the nearly deserted old town of Hanapepe on the west side of the island. Back then there were still bargains to be found, even for coveted old “silkies,” which over time became harder to find and more expensive. I’ve had the eagle-eye out for aloha shirts ever since.
I don’t consider myself a collector. I just like them and keep buying them—new, old; I really don’t care. Like anyone, I have certain colors I prefer, designs I like, and materials I’m most comfortable wearing. I have silk, rayon, and cotton shirts mostly. I couldn’t tell you the vintage of most of them because so many come from second-hand shops. When I looked through my very disorganized closet not too long ago, I counted 32 aloha shirts, about 20 of which I wear with some regularity—living in California there are ample opportunities to “go Hawaiian” year-round. A few are somewhat tattered, but I can’t part with them yet. Others no longer fit me as well as they once did (how is that even possible?). I’ve probably owned close to 50 over the years. Some I gave away, others, sad to say, had nowhere to go but the trash.
It was during that closet excavation that it first dawned on me that, purely by coincidence, I had accumulated a bunch of shirts that featured ukuleles prominently in their designs. I thought it would be fun to showcase a few in Ukulele, but I needed more than just my own shirts, so I called upon two contributors to the magazine I knew were also aloha shirt freaks like me: Jim Beloff and Sandor Nagyszalanczy. Now, they both are hardcore collectors of Hawaiiana, so they really had a lot cool shirts to pick from. The gallery here showcases some from each of us.
PS. If you’re interested in the history of aloha shirts, look for a copy of the gorgeous and informative book The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands by Dale Hope.