Past Perfect

September 1, 2012 | By Natalie Tarce

Vintage aloha wear is more than just patterns and cloth—it’s culture preserved.

One of the most visible symbols of Hawai‘i’s aloha spirit can be seen in 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. Shirtmaker 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 towards 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.

Local aloha shirt brands like Kahala ( will usually have an archived collection of their original shirts from long ago. However, if you’re a fan of the classic shirt and want to add something similar to your wardrobe, patterns and prints from the time of the aloha shirt’s inception are fortunately being brought back. For example, a few of aloha-wear purveyor Tori Richard’s ( original prints are seasonally re-issued and available at its shops across Waikiki. And if you’re seeking the genuine article, you’re sure to find an authentic vintage aloha shirt at Bailey’s Antiques and Aloha Shirts (517 Kapahulu Ave., 808-734-7628,—it has the largest selection of vintage aloha shirts in town (and perhaps anywhere in the world). At Bailey’s you’ll find almost every pattern imaginable, including the rarest of the rare.