From the Spring 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY DALE HOPE
Who originated the aloha shirt? This is a topic that comes up frequently among lovers of all things Hawaiian, and like most popular inventions, it is claimed by many fathers and mothers.
One version of the shirt’s origin comes from a Hawaii senior citizen, Margaret Young. Her memories were sparked by Tommy Steele’s colorful book The Hawaiian Shirt when it was first published in 1984, and she wrote to the editor of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin offering her recollections. According to Young, her classmate, Gordon Young (no relation), developed a pre-aloha shirt in the early 1920s. His mother’s dressmaker tailored shirts for him out of cotton yukata cloth used by Japanese women for work kimonos. Made with narrow-width fabric, Gordon Young’s shirts typically featured a blue or black bamboo or geometric design on a white background. Young first popularized his new style shirt at the University of Hawaii; later, in 1926, he took a substantial supply of the garments to the University of Washington, creating a real “topic of conversation,” Margaret Young wrote.
Other versions of the origin of the aloha shirt portray this fashion creation as the happy result of colliding cultural influences from Japan, Hawaii, and the mainland. Supporters of this perspective point to the first newspaper ad for an “Aloha Shirt,” which appeared in June of 1935 in the Honolulu Advertiser. The person behind the ad was a small Honolulu tailor named Musa-Shiya Shoten in downtown Honolulu. The shirts in the advertisement featured well-tailored, beautiful designs, “ready made or made to order 95 cents up.” Later, Musa-Shiya placed another tiny newspaper ad that read, “Specials For Tourists! Aloha Shirts made to order or ready made.”
Hollywood, city of style-setters even today, played a crucial role in popularizing the aloha shirt in the 1930s. Dolores Miyamoto, the wife and working partner of the tailor, Koichiro Miyamoto (aka Musa-Shiya the shirt-maker), remembers making shirts for the decade’s biggest box-office star, Shirley Temple. She also recalls the decade’s most respected actor, John Barrymore, entering the store, pointing to an original Japanese Kabe crepe fabric, and ordering a custom shirt of that material. Until that moment, the Musashiya’s had not made a printed shirt. Years later, Dolores said, “she had made the first aloha shirt, but no big deal.”
One of the best-known stories about the aloha shirt’s beginnings involves the Chun family and King-Smith Clothiers. In a 1964 interview, Ellery Chun recalled that local boys wore casual shirts made of Japanese challis (a woven fabric) and local Filipino boys wore brilliantly colored shirt-tail-out tops known as Bayau shirts. He recalled having a tailor make his first printed shirts out of brilliant and gaudy Japanese kimono material in 1932 or 1933. Many of Hawaii’s beach boys also went to tailor shops with visitors for custom-made shirts, and it was Ellery’s idea to have ready-made shirts hanging in stock at his father’s store, King-Smith Clothiers. In a store window, he placed a small sign, “Hawaiian Shirts.” Ellery was the first to register the trademarks, “Aloha Sportswear” and “Aloha Shirt” in 1936 and 1937.
Ellery’s sister was one of the early textile artists who pioneered Hawaiian clothing designs. She turned impressions of her first cruise to the mainland on the Matson liner Malolo into one of her initial tropical shirt designs—sketches of the flying fish she saw from the ship ended up on the pattern for one of the Aloha Shirts produced by King-Smith.
T.H. Ho, who got his start by making shoes and checkered palaka shirts for plantation workers, is also credited as one of the original aloha shirt makers with his Surfriders Sportswear label. The company’s island-style retail store in the middle of Waikiki sold many of the elegant shirts that are cherished by collectors today. Rube Hauseman is yet another person who claims to have originated the aloha shirt.
He first started making shirts in 1935, contracting them out to Wong’s Products in the Kalihi area of Honolulu. He bought crepe, batiks, and Fuji silk in vivid colored patterns from Musashiya. Rube was friends with many of the beach boys, including the legendary Panama Dave, Colgate, and William “Chick” Daniels. Rube recalls that after surfing, he and his friends would go eat Japanese food in Waikiki, and later go to their hangouts in downtown Honolulu, such as the Rathskellar Bar, a popular spot both for locals and visiting celebrities such as Bing Crosby and other noted musicians of the time. Rube would give the beach boys the wildest, most vivid of his shirts to wear to the Rathskellar.
Support for this origin-story appeared in a January 1953 Star-Bulletin article, “Men and Money at Work—Hawaii’s Multi-Million Dollar Garment Industry.” The article states: “A beer parlor or bar is said to have influenced the industry. The shirt most commonly referred to as the Aloha Shirt was first called the Rathskellar Shirt according to one intriguing version.”
In 1936, Watamull’s East India Store commissioned Elsie Das to create 15 original Hawaiian prints. They were printed on raw silk for the home furnishing market and, later, aloha shirts. Soon after, Elsie and others began creating their own designs, substituting fresh graphic images for what had traditionally been Japanese-styled motifs and prints on imported fabrics. Honolulu’s Diamond Head was substituted for Mt. Fuji; Japanese pine trees became coconut palms. Gone were the bamboo, cranes, tigers, and shrines of the Oriental prints; in their place appeared thatched huts, ocean scenes, and surfers, canoes on waves, tropical fish, and native flowers.
Also in 1936, Nat Norfleet and George Brangier opened their first office and factory for their brand name, Branfleet, at 1704 North King Street, right next door to one of the pioneers in garment manufacturing, Wong Products. By 1937, they were manufacturing sportswear under the names “Kahala” and “Kahanamoku.” They had an agreement with Duke Kahanamoku to make garments with his name on the label that read, “Designed by Duke Kahanamoku, World Champion Swimmer, Made in the Hawaiian Islands.” Kahala shirts were found in finer department stores and shops on the mainland and in Honolulu by 1939. Popular prints, many created by Branfleet’s designer, Betty Gregory, included the “Hawaiian Dictionary” print with English translations of Hawaiian words, an “authentic Samoan tapa print,” a hula pattern depicting the feather gourd and slender bamboo sticks used by dancers, a cornflower motif, and an “aloha pattern” using island motifs such as the Aloha Tower and hibiscus. Other Kahala shirts had names such as “Go for Broke,” “The Dumb Fish,” and “Red Opu.”
In 1959, Kahala’s 85-machine business was generating $1 million per year in sales to retailers worldwide, among them Galeries Lafayette in France and B. Altman on the mainland. Kahala was known for its subtle, tasteful cotton prints. In 1961, the company presented a new Duke Kahanamoku line.
In a Honolulu Advertiser article, Nat Norfleet was quoted about their early start in the industry: “We began like nearly everybody else in the business, not with a pair of shoestrings, but with one between us. Red McQueen, a newsman, had brought back some shirts from the 1932 Olympics in Japan made out of silk kimono cloth. We copied them to produce our first aloha shirts. They were absolutely horrible, but Elmer Lee had a stand in front of the old Outrigger Canoe Club where he sold coconut milk and pineapple juice, and he sold our frightening shirts.”
In 1948, at the age of 26, Alfred Shaheen opened a tiny aloha shirt manufacturing business with only four seamstresses that had been trained by his mother, a custom dressmaker. Shaheen followed the successful examples of much larger companies like Kamehameha and Kahala by importing textiles and having them cut and sewn in his local plant.
In a few years Shaheen realized that to gain a competitive edge he needed to be in control of his piece goods. He set up a subsidiary, Surf ’n Sand Hand Prints, in a rented Quonset hut on Hornet Street near the future site of the Honolulu International Airport. There were years of experimenting and evolution in this original plant. By 1952, they could turn out 60,000 yards of printed material a month in a modern 23,000 square-foot facility closer to Waikiki.
Shaheen also created an in-house art department headed up by Tony Walker, who co-directed artists Bob Sato and Louise Chun. They could take an idea and convert it into a striking finished garment in a matter of weeks. They sold shirts, sportswear, evening wear, and printed bolts of fabric to 3,600 retail outlets on the mainland including such major chains as Bullock’s and Robinson’s. Stores in London, France, Hong Kong, Tahiti, Samoa, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands also carried Shaheen’s goods. No local manufacturer inspired more respect that Alfred Shaheen, a man who built the most self-sufficient garment company Hawaii would ever see.
As with most good things, the shirt quickly passed from the province of a few mom and pop entrepreneurs to becoming a factory-made commodity. By the late 1930s garment factories had opened in the then-Trust Territory of Hawaii, where they began to turn out aloha shirts by the gross for a growing selection of brands and labels.
Regardless of who finally is acknowledged as the “true creator of the aloha shirt,” there is no mystery about the garment’s universal appeal. Adorned with romantic island motifs and tropical imagery, this casual attire reflects the wearer’s encounters with a dreamy yet spirited tropical paradise. Today, as in the 1930s, aloha shirts are worn after a day at the beach in Waikiki, or to an evening moonlight luau. And, they are brought back Stateside as a cherished keepsake and reminder of carefree island experiences. Modern Hawaii’s best-known contribution to fashion continues to lend dash and color to contemporary standards of casual dress, both in Hawaii and well beyond her shores.
Dale Hope is the author of The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands, first published in 2000, with a revised edition published in 2016.
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