Elvis was photographed in a Hawaiian shirt, so were Bing Crosby (he had his own label), Harry Truman and Walt Disney. They are beach wear - proof that you are on vacation. The style was developed in the 1920s and 1930s by local manufacturers: worn by both native and tourists, it was the dress of choice on the palm-fringed Hawaiian holiday beaches - a paradise which, the posters of the Matson Line promised, was only a few sea-days away from the US West Coast. You went ashore and more often than not bought a shirt - some even had pictures of your cruise ship surrounded by floral leis. The basic shape - square-cut, short-sleeved - isn't so far from that of the long-sleeved loose 'frocks' the first European sailors wore. But although the shape is so simple it's hard to say where it came from, the fabric designs can be traced to a dozen sources. To start with, there were the bold geometric patterns drawn on native Pacific fabric - tapa cloth, beaten out from the bark of the paper mulberry. In the 1920s, aloha shirts might be made from kimono lengths from Japan - elaborately printed silk or plain blue and white - or from big-patterned florals in English cotton, like the wrap-around pareus Gauguin's Tahitian women wear. After that, locally designed - and locally printed - patterns, which might have the innocence of nursery wallpaper, the brilliance of fruit-box labels or the tackiness of tourist-brochure artwork, began to flourish. Confections of frangipani and pineapple, bamboo, surf and volcanoes make the brightest floral chintz look tame. The buttons of the true aloha shirt were cut from coconut shell. Collectors now comb thrift stores for masterpieces of printed rayon from the Golden Age - which they reckon runs up to around 1955. Chinese and Japanese tailors and entrepreneurs were among the early manufacturers; as the business got bigger, it became a significant part of the local economy and then spread to the mainland. Manufacturers world-wide have made their own versions with their own allusions: the Hawaiian shirt is no longer just a Pacific speciality.
LRB 5 September 2002 | PDF Download