“The Art of the Aloha Shirt” by DeSoto Brown & Linda Arthur
There are a lot of books about the history of the Hawaiian aloha shirt, but I picked up “The Art of the Aloha Shirt” (2002) because of its clever cover: a blue aloha shirt, covered with Hawaiian words and illustrations of the Kamehameha Statue, hula girls, fish, flowers, and coconut trees, with the title and authors discretely revealed on the designer label. The older cover, a luau scene with a man in a red aloha shirt, a woman looking coyly at him, and hula dancers, is more colorful, retro, and flashy.
Written by DeSoto Brown, Hawaiiana collector and author, and Linda Arthur, professor and curator of the University of Hawaii’s Historic Costume Collection, “The Art of the Aloha Shirt” is filled with color graphics, historic photos, and trivia that takes us through the origins of the aloha shirt, from traditional kapa cloth in Hawaii, to historical clothing trends, fabric printing, and clothing design.
Aloha shirts as we know them were invented in the 1930s, part of a resurgence of Hawaiian awareness and “local” pride. Ellery Chun first began selling pre-made aloha shirts at his family’s store, King-Smith, while his sister Ellen Chun Lum created Hawaiian fabric designs printed onto silk a few years later. Aloha shirts were popularized outside of Hawaii by celebrities like John Wayne, Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, and surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku, who invented the straight-hemmed shirt (meant to be worn loose).
The early aloha shirts were heavily influenced by Asian and Polynesian designs. Alohawear has evolved from tropical foliage in the 1940s, vivid and complicated “chop suey” designs and abstract and geometrical patterns in the 1950s, to the subtle reverse prints in the 1960s that are still popular today, and accepted as business attire in Hawaii.
Aloha shirts are full of meaning, as a notable development in men’s fashions, as an iconic symbol of Hawaii, and as a reflection of “local” identity and Hawaiian pride.
“The Art of the Aloha Shirt” is interesting and eclectic, but somewhat formal in tone. I enjoyed the vintage aloha shirt photos and aloha shirt-inspired souvenirs, like greeting cards. My favorite bits of trivia: United Airlines flight attendants first wore alohawear on flights to Hawaii in the mid-1960s; and Aloha Friday (a once-a-week casual dress day) began in 1966.
The aloha shirt’s influence continues: this year, to celebrate the spirit of “aloha,” the United States Postal Service issued a series of five aloha shirt postcard-rate stamps, designed by art director Carl Herrman and based on photos by Ric Noyle.