The first Hawaiian shirts date back to the 1920s and were very different than the shirts we see today. These were crafted from the fabrics and styles brought from immigrants—Kimono cloth from Japan, colorful silk from China, a loose shirt from the Philippines called the Barong Tagalog—as well as block patterns native to Hawaii. These shirts were first worn by plantation workers, and soon, higher quality versions were sold in small tailor shops to American tourists floating in on cruise ships. Soon, other locals began wearing them for special occasions such as weddings. In the beginning, these Hawaiian shirts were loved by all and supposedly thought to visually reflect the resident Hawaiians’ welcoming feelings towards incoming visitors.
Fast forward to the early 1930s, when a man named Ellery Chun became the first mass producer of Hawaiian shirts. A native Hawaiian and recent Yale graduate, his production stemmed from the need to get through the Great Depression. He and his sister, Ethel Chun Lum, branded the shirt style as Aloha Shirts, which is the dominant name still used on the Islands today. Starting with a few dozen patterns including the defining pineapples, palm trees, and hula girls, he was producing mass quantities by 1933. With this mass production, cheaper imitations cropped up that were worn by tourists and quickly associated with their stereotypical characteristics: foolish, overweight, and inferior.