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The Surprising History of the Aloha Shirt

February 25, 2019

The Surprising History of the Aloha Shirt

The King on the cover of his album, "Blue Hawaii" - you can buy this shirt at Noosa Longboards!

At Noosa Longboards ‘aloha’ is quite literally our middle name. When Chris de Aboitiz founded Noosa Longboards 25 years ago in 1994, he brought all his passion for the culture of his childhood home in Waikiki to the Sunshine Coast. Since its inception, Noosa Longboards has prided itself in searching out unique and genuine items of Hawaiiana to share with our customers.


By far our favourite piece of Hawaiian culture is the Aloha shirt. After all, there is almost no symbol of Hawaii more widely recognizable or more widely loved. The irresistible magnetism of the Aloha shirt has allowed it to transcend all cultural boundaries - it is no exaggeration to say that the Hawaiian shirt one of the most widely recognized cultural icons on earth.


But what is an Aloha shirt? Where did it come from? The truth is, it’s not just a holiday shirt or a crowd favourite among Queensland’s cricket goers. What many people may not realise is that there is much more to the Aloha shirt than meets the eye. It has a rich, unique, and at times surprising history that once learned only adds to its charm. The irony about the Aloha shirt is that it is both wildly popular and under-appreciated at the same time. 


The story of the Aloha shirt starts in the late 1800s, when thousands of Japanese and Chinese workers began to immigrate to Hawaii to provide labour for the growing sugar and pineapple industries. Life in this line of work was harsh for the newcomers, and the most resourceful among them found ways to strike out on their own.


One popular business among the immigrant community was to import cotton and silk textiles from Asia and fashion the fabric into garments that were suited to local needs. Over time, a cottage industry of textile and fabric makers, as well as home sewers and tailors developed. In the late 1800s, Hawaiian-made clothing did not look like it does today, but the tough Hawaiian fabrics of the time were nevertheless popular in the mainland United States. 


In the 1920s and 30s, Japanese Hawaiian tailors built up a small business experimenting with spare lengths of imported Kabe crepe fabric usually used for traditional kimono to fashion shirts. This light weight and colourful shirt proved a hit in the hot climate and seemed to exude a vibe that suited the laid-back island lifestyle. This is the reason early Aloha shirts had a distinctly oriental flavour. It’s something you’d be unlikely to spot if you didn’t already know, but once you look at a side by side comparison of Japanese fabrics and Hawaiian shirts, the stylistic link is unmistakable. 

Koichiro Miyamoto, aka "Musa-Shiya the Shirtmaker" - one of the original Aloha shirt tailors

But It wasn’t until the 1940s that the Aloha shirt really took off. Because of the war, it was no longer possible to rely on Japanese fabrics, and local shirt makers turned to their local surroundings for inspiration for their designs. For the thousands of US military servicemen stationed on Hawaii, the discovery of these unique shirts was a sensation. Nothing seemed to better capture the essence of the extraordinary time and place they had found themselves in. When they returned home carrying these shirts as souvenirs, the Aloha shirt went global. They made such an impression that pretty soon everyone was wearing them – from Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby, to beachgoers in California and actors in Hollywood. Even President Harry Truman was known to have an extensive collection.

Below: On the left – a typical Japanese Kimono print. On the right – an early Aloha shirt design

Contemporary Aloha shirts constantly revive and reinvent the work produced by the old school craftsmen of this era. That’s why the Hawaiian shirt is a living, breathing antique. At Noosa Longboards you can find some of the best examples of high quality Aloha shirt brands that keep these vintage designs alive. Avanti and Reyn Spooner just can’t be beat. If you want to learn more, then look no further than Dale Hope’s definitive book, The Aloha Shirt, which you can find in store or online. If you’ve got some real beauties in your collection, we’d love it if you shared some photos with us - just send them through on Facebook or Instagram!