History of the Hawaiian Shirt

History of the Hawaiian shirt

Mariana Hawaiian Shirt

The Hawaiian shirt, or, more correctly, the Aloha shirt, is a camp shirt featuring brightly printed island themed fabrics and are popular with both men and women. Normally, they are short sleeved, collared and are usually buttoned up in front. What distinguishes the Aloha shirt from others shirts are the beautifully printed fabrics. Designs include traditional floral patterns and Polynesian motifs and modern variations that can include full island scenes or automotive and cocktail themes made popular by textile designers in California. Aloha shirts are considered everyday wear in the islands and are commonly worn in both casual and business settings. Vintage shirts are collectors' items that can collect hundreds of dollars on venues such as eBay.


By the 1920s the first colorful Hawaiian shirts started to appear based on the plain work shirts the islanders wore called a palaka. The first fabrics were mostly colorful kimono fabrics sourced from the Japanese merchants that immigrated to the islands, and were generally sewn at home for family. The newly arrived mainland tourists were mesmerized by the tropical colors and a small cottage industry was born.

Ellery Chun and King-Smith Clothiers

After retuning to his island home after earning a degree in economics from Yale, Waikiki merchant Ellery Chun made the first commercially produced Hawaiian shirts in the mid 1930’s.

Remembering the clothing made for him by his mother when he was a child, Chun started by sewing some shirts for the tourists from some leftover kimono fabrics. Soon, his sleepy dry goods company, King-Smith Clothiers, was producing all they could make. The Honolulu Advertiser newspaper was the first to use the term Aloha shirt to describe Chun's creation. Chun was a master marketeer and almost single handedly created the industry. In short time, many other companies started producing their own shirts from fabric remnants imported from Kyoto and Osaka. Popular fabrics were cotton yukata and rayon Kabe Crepe and Fujiettes. Rayon, a fabric usually derived from wood pulp, was especially popular with the locals and tourists due to its cool nature, fluidity and ease of printing. Silk fabrics were also used. In the late 1950’s polyester fabrics started to make some inroads. Squish Wear uses the traditional rayon and cotton exclusively. It quickly became apparent that using remnants as a fabric source would not be sufficient to meet the demand, so Honolulu based designers traveled to Japan to source Yukata fabric and create their own island style designs. Some mills on the US mainland also got into the business. In an effort to cut the long lead times, several fabric printing companies started production directly on Oahu, however the Japanese were always the main source for the printed fabrics due to their high quality and reasonable pricing.

Hollywood discovers the Hawaiian shirt in the 1950's

Montgomery Clift wore one in From Here To Eternity, the 1953 film set in Pearl Harbor. Elvis Presley sported one in Blue Hawaii (1961), and Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were both big fans. Even Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman were photographed wearing them off-duty. The 1960’s television series Hawaii Five-O, the Beach Boys, and the 1970’s TV hit Magnum starring Tom Selleck kept the look popular for decades after the shirt’s inception.

Eventually, Ellery Chun moved on from the Hawaiian shirt industry, and became director of American Security Bank. The Hawaiian Senate honored him in 1991 for his remarkable marketing achievements. Ellery Chun died in Honolulu on May 16, 2000.

A Full wholesale catalog with all our designs can be seen online at www.squishwear.com

Squish Hawaiian Shirts

PO Box 13440
Burton, WA 98013 USA