Hawaiian Shirts and the Birth of Casual Friday

HAWAIIAN SHIRTS

and the Birth of Casual Friday

There are few pieces of clothing that the average person gets more worked up about than the Hawaiian Shirt, also known as the Aloha Shirt. Do you love them for their beautiful patterns and breezy nature? Do you hate them because they’re the tackiest thing on the planet? Understandable on both accounts. We’ve been knee-deep in our polarizing feelings about the Hawaiian shirt since its inception.
At Ragstock, we’re known for our Hawaiian shirts. We have tons of patterns and prints, ranging from toucans and tigers to palm trees and hibiscus flowers. 134 varieties, if you can believe it—and that doesn’t even include our collection of vintage Hawaiian shirts. Excessive? Maybe. But with their storied history, you can’t blame our moderate obsession.
Filipino immigrant family in Hawaii, 1906
Filipino immigrant family in Hawaii, 1906
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.
Some of President Truman's Hawaiian shirts, 1951
Some of President Truman's Hawaiian shirts, 1951
While they were loved at first, Hawaiian shirts were banned from many state and corporate offices on the Islands as their on-vacation look was believed to seep into the wearer’s work habits. However, there was eventually a successful petition called “Operation Liberation” penned by the affected garment industry in Hawaii to push Hawaiian shirts as appropriate wear on the last day of the week. Hence, the creation of “Aloha Friday” on the Islands. On the mainland? “Casual Friday” was born.
As time marched on, male celebrities and politicians began to wear Hawaiian shirts as well. Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Harry S. Truman among the likes. Hawaiian shirts have appeared in countless comics and television cameos, and have alternated between being the butt of jokes and the highest of fashion as many times. Now, it’s hard to say where they fall. Very possibly, there has never been and will never be a consensus on the Hawaiian shirt. In my humble opinion, it’s better that way.