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Summer Cool...Going Vintaqe Hawaiian!

- by Rhonda Erb, fashion reporter

Shirt from the Nathan Garrett Collection (photo: Isabelle Erb)

The reputation of the Aloha shirt has come a long way over the years. What was once a colorful (if not gaudy) tourist memento has evolved into a prized art form combining fashion, style and nostalgia. Shirts from the golden age of the Aloha shirt are now very popular with collectors. Nathan Garrett, a New Yorker, owns over 350 shirts and proudly wears a different one every day. His shirts, most of which are made of vintage rayon and silk, include designs depicting maps, Hawaiian words, and floral designs silk-screened in vibrant colors. Garrett’s collection features some of the most popular manufacturers of their day, including Kamehameha Garment Company and Kahala Aloha shirts. He finds shirts on e-bay, at vintage clothing shows, and occasionally in thrift shops.

The cover of Life Magazine, dated December 10, 1951, featured a beaming President Harry Truman wearing a Hawaiian shirt for a story entitled “The President of the United States - Evolution of a Wardrobe.” Truman wore Aloha shirts, as they came to be known, regularly while in office and in retirement. The Aloha shirt gained popularity after World War II, reaching a peak in the 1950’s and 60’s, as jet travel and statehood brought Hawaii onto the national spotlight.

Shirt from the Nathan Garrett Collection (photo: Isabelle Erb)

Although the exact origin of the Aloha shirt is clouded in uncertainty, there are many disparate influences that came together to create the style. Immigrants brought many different ideas, especially the Japanese with their colorful kimonos. Ellery Chun, the owner of King-Smith clothiers in Honolulu, possibly created the first Aloha shirt in 1936. He used Japanese yukata cloth to make a square-bottom, short sleeve shirt that he sold in his store with a sign in the window advertising “Aloha Shirts.” His original shirts are now in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Textile Collection. Another early manufacturer of the shirts was Koichiro Miyamoto, a Hawaiian tailor who created designs under the name of Musa-Shiya.

Montgomery Cliff & Donna Reed in "From Here to Eternity" (Copyright Donna Reed Foundation © 2006)

Others followed suit and a fashion trend was born. Vibrant prints representing Hawaiian and Polynesian themes and art were silk-screened onto rayon, silk, or cotton fabrics. Many early shirts were made from leftover printed fabrics used for kimonos. Hollywood embraced the shirts, with Frank Sinatra, Ernest Borgnine, Montgomery Cliff, and Burt Lancaster wearing them in the 1953 movie classic, “From Here to Eternity.” Bing Crosby was known for wearing Aloha shirts along with his “pork pie” hat. Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, Tom Sellek in the "Magnum PI" TV series, and others looking to capture that casual Hawaiian style made the shirts a mainstay of their wardrobes.

The shirts’ popularity would become what many consider to be their undoing. By the early 1960’s more than a few Hawaiians felt that Aloha shirts had become tacky and touristy, ill-fitting garments with many shirts made elsewhere but sold in Hawaii. A cultural resurgence came with manufacturers such as Reyn-Spooner, who pioneered the reverse-fabric shirt, making new items look faded and sun-bleached, just like shirts worn by the local surfers. The Reyn-Spooner pullover, button-down collar shirt was designed and manufactured in Hawaii, and continues to this day to be a popular favorite. Reyn McCullough joined with the Hawaii Fashion Guild in 1966 to create casual Fridays, a day on which people could dress down and wear Aloha shirts to work. Aloha shirts are now considered suitable for all days on the islands, and the idea of casual Fridays has spread nationwide. Reyn-Spooner also continues to use the textile designs of Alfred Shaheen, a popular shirt maker of the 50’s and 60’s.

As recently as 2004, The American Textile History Museum, in Lowell, Massachusetts, had a special exhibition, “Let’s Go Hawaiian”, featuring over 150 shirts. Aspiring collectors should pay special attention to labels in their shirts, featuring information such as names of designers, manufacturers, department stores, and the fabric of the shirt. Prices can range anywhere from $5 to close to $5000 for an especially rare, museum quality piece.

And, they are still fun to wear!

DFR: Daily Fashion Report