Aloha State of Mind

November 6, 2013 | By Natalie Tarce

Discover the roots of island fashion and a contemporary brand that is carrying on the tradition of alohawear.


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

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 offices and other workplaces throughout Hawai’i.

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 alohawear a lifestyle.

One of the more popular local alohawear brands in Hawai’i is ‘Iolani Sportswear. For more than 60 years, ‘Iolani has been designing and manufacturing clothing in Hawai’i. “Our design team does not wait for fashion to come to Hawai’i,” says Carla Kawakami, COO of ‘Iolani. “We go out and find it. Then, we make it happen right here in the heart of Honolulu!” The ‘Iolani brand is designed for a young and sophisticated customer. According to Kawakami, the 2013 Holiday collection will feature a rayon rattan two-color print done in black and raspberry, as well as a black and cream geometric knit and a floral knit in black and raspberry (to match the rayon rattan piece).

Find the ‘Iolani brand at retailers in Waikiki including Nani’s Gift Shop, Makai Gift Outlet, Hawaiian Fashion Boutique and more.