Style Brief history of Aloha Shirt

Brief history of Aloha Shirt

Andrea Tuzio

The sunny white beaches, the blue waters of the Pacific and the golden sunsets.
These wonderful images, besides hurting us because we could hardly see them this summer, are also a symbol of one of the most beautiful places on the planet, the Hawaii Islands.
There is, however, a further sign of recognition that distinguishes one of the most famous archipelagos in the world, the Aloha Shirt.

The history of Hawaii and the Aloha Shirt are intertwined in a tale of legends that we try to explore here. 

Although the Hawaii Islands were still politically independent at the beginning of the 20th century, US businessmen flocked to the archipelago to buy land to grow sugar cane and pineapple. Clearly, these plantations needed labor, so laborers from Japan, China and all four corners of the Pacific began to arrive and each brought their own costumes, language and clothing.

Among the many tales that have been handed down about the birth of the Hawaiian shirt, it seems that the most accredited are those who describe some Japanese and Chinese tailors, who came to work in the fields, created the models that would later become a reference point in the world of tailoring.

Let’s start with a particular story. The student Gordon Young, in the early 1920s, developed a shirt that we would call pre-aloha, which immediately became very popular among his colleagues at the University of Hawaii. In fact, the mind behind this prototype was his mother who was a seamstress and tailored shirts in yukata cotton, which was used for Japanese women’s work kimonos. 

In June 1935 then, a tailor who had a small shop in downtown Honolulu, Koichiro Miyamoto called Musa-Shiya “The Shirtmaker”, published in a local newspaper the first ad advertising his shirts, decorated with beautiful designs characterized by bright colors, calling them for the first time Aloha Shirt. The price was 95 cents, both for those already made and those made to order.
An important testimony of Musa-Shiya’s work, his wife and business partner, Dolores Miyamoto, gives it to us: she remembers that they made shirts for Shirley Temple, for the American actor John Barrymore, who went directly to their small shop in Honolulu to order a shirt in original Japanese fabric. It was the first time the two made a printed shirt.  

Another well-known story about the origins of the Aloha shirt is the one linked to the Chun family and the King-Smith Clothiers company.
Ellery Chun stated in an interview in 1964 that after seeing some Filipino boys wearing very garish swallow-tail shirts, the bayau, she had her first shirts printed by a tailor in 1932/33. Those same shirts were then taken to the warehouse of his father, King-Smith Clothiers, and then displayed in a shop with a small sign that read, Hawaiian Shirts. Ms. Ellery was the first to register the trademarks “Aloha Sportswear” and “Aloha Shirts” in 1936 and 1937 respectively.
Ellery’s sister was one of the pioneers in textile design, reporting on shirt fabrics the images that had struck her during a cruise, like flying fish. 

As we said at the beginning, there are many stories about the genesis of this iconic garment and of course we can’t bring them all back, over time we all have worn one at least once in our lives.

From Elvis Presley to Harry Truman, Leonardo Di Caprio in Buz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I., etc.

We close with one hope, that we can put them on and show them off as soon as possible.

Written by Andrea Tuzio
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