Fashion That Defines the Islands

January 24, 2012 | By Natalie Tarce

Reyn Spooner is a favorite for island men

One of the most visible symbols of Hawai‘i’s aloha spirit can be seen in contemporary Hawaiian fashion known as aloha wear.

Its roots can be traced back to 1820 when New England missionaries arrived in Hawai‘i. Missionary women adapted the latest fashion in order to accommodate the large size of ali‘i (royalty) women. The design was then altered into a more comfortable fit, and the holoku— a loose, floor-length, long-sleeved formal dress—was born. The mu‘umu‘u was initially a chemise worn under the holoku, and it wasn’t until the 1940s with the introduction of Hawaiian prints that it was considered fit to be worn in public.

The aloha shirt that we know today did not come about until the mid-1930s. Shirt-maker Musa-Shiya first used the term in a 1935 advertisement. However, it was tailor Ellery Chun who trademarked “aloha shirt” in 1936 as tourism in Hawai‘i grew. After World War II, bolder patterns with tropical images emerged. Rayon shirts called “silkies” became popular from 1945 to 1955. By the late 1970s, designs inspired by the Hawaiian culture came about. Eventually, subdued looking “reverse print” aloha shirts were introduced and are now worn daily in the workplace.

Today, the shift toward island style resort wear gives aloha fashion a more cosmopolitan feel. Some aloha shirts may not necessarily feature Hawaiian prints but have various images arranged in a similar pattern as a traditional aloha shirt. Visit any clothing store in Waikiki and you will find not just traditional aloha attire but also a variety of Hawaiian print dresses, shorts and accessories inspired by the rich history of a multi-cultural society that has made aloha wear a lifestyle.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the aloha shirt, Hawai‘i Governor Neil Abercrombie declared 2011 the “Year of the Aloha shirt,” a nod to Hawai‘i legislators of 1962, who approved the wearing of aloha attire during the summer months. The term “Aloha Friday” was born out of this—a tradition that encouraged men to wear aloha shirts on Fridays.

Photo: Courtesy Reyn’s