Fashion > What to Wear > THE HAWAIIAN SHIRT

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Posted on April 20, 2012, by jack

The Hawaiian shirt was once fashion’s biggest no-no. But the Hawaiian shirt is having a comeback. As designers and high street stores play with the patterns and fit of the Hawaiian shirt, they have become a perfectly acceptable part of the summer uniform. And with George Clooney wearing a selection of Hawaiian shirts in his Oscar-nominated role in The Descendants, Hawaiian shirts are re-entering the public consciousness – and look set to stay there well into the summer.

As with all ‘mythical’ items of clothing – those that have defined a nation, as the Hawaiian shirt has – it is not a simple story to trace the shirt’s beginnings. What we do know, however, is that before the 1920s, Hawaiian residents had a rather sober wardrobe, with men wearing plain, solid colour work shirts called a pakaka. It was only as tourists arrived, and a new market opened, that Hawaiians started to harness to power of their brightly coloured prints. Creating custom designs that were then made into shirts, Hawaiians remarketed themselves to the people on board American cruise ships.

But it was Hawaiian native and Yale graduate, Ellery Chun, who truly popularised the Hawaiian shirt. Operating out of King-Smith Clothiers on the Hawaiian island of Waikiki, Chun started producing brightly coloured shirts made out of leftover kimono fabrics. It was him who gave them the name ‘Aloha shirts,’ a term still used on the island of Hawaii today. Combining strong Hawaiian patterns of palm trees and flamingos with Japanese and Chinese prints, Chun’s shirts were, for whatever reason, instantly popular. The Hawaiian shirt soon became a symbol of Hawaii’s easy going reputation.

But the Hawaiian shirt almost instantly became a masculine commodity. Representing a rugged, relaxed masculinity, men from all walks of life, from surfers to traders, began to wear the Aloha shirt. As their appeal crossed on to the mainland, menswear icons from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra wore the style, making the Hawaiian shirt a marker of 1950s cool. Retailers not just from Hawaii began to stock the shirts, and it soon became a summer uniform for a generation of Americans.

After falling out of favour for a number of decades, the Hawaiian shirt is back for this Spring/Summer. The trend was perhaps started with Prada’s riff on the Aloha style (below). Although the print was very different, the shape and feel of the shirt was akin to its Hawaiian counterpart. Both Comme Des Garcons and Marc Jacobs have incorporated Aloha prints or the Hawaiian shirt into their collections. And with Topman stocking a number of flower print shirts this season, the Aloha shirt looks set to take the high street by storm as well.

To achieve a more modern take on the style, go for slightly more fitted Hawaiian shirts with clear, bold prints. If going for a vintage style, try an oversized Aloha shirt with skinny jeans. If you are wearing the Hawaiian shirt with shorts, avoid baggy cargo shorts as you can easily end up looking like a 90s tourist. Instead, go for a jean short or smarter, more tailored style. For a summer evening look, or for cooler summer days, button the Hawaiian shirt up and wear with a cream cashmere sweater.

Jack Moss