SB: I was actually low key pretty good at hula, not gonna lie.
AT: Sarah Burke grew up in Hawaii, just outside of Honolulu.
SB: When I was in high school I visited New York for the first time and noticed that a lot of vintage shops had all these super tacky Hawaiian shirts, and that it was this cool thing to wear with like skinny jeans. This is like a thing, right?
AT: Yeah, that was totally a thing, and it’s still kind of a thing now. These days, high-end designers are making versions of Hawaiian shirts. Hawaiian shirts are in style.
SB: And we just thought it was the most hilarious trend. It just seemed so ridiculous to us to like wear a Hawaiian shirt with Ray Bans. Like, we would never do that.
AT: Well first of all, they wouldn’t call them Hawaiian shirts.
SB: No one would say Hawaiian shirt, in Hawaii. That just sounds ridiculous. (laughter)
AT: In Hawaii, they’re Aloha shirts, and they’re slightly different.
SB: The Aloha shirt is a very common thing to wear in Hawaii. Everyone has an Aloha shirt. And, it doesn’t look the same as a Hawaiian shirt.
AT: I don’t know about you, but I think of Hawaiian shirts having, like, tiki heads and bikini ladies on them. Aloha shirts are a little more professional.
SB: Aloha shirts are like more toned down, you know? They have these really tasteful floral prints. If you’re going out to a nice occasion, you would wear an Aloha shirt.
SB: Yeah. It’s like a very common thing, most men own one. But its definitely still a product of colonization, you know what I mean? It’s not like back in the day native Hawaiians were all walking around in Aloha shirts, you know what I mean?
JM: And then we make markers which are the jigsaw pieces of the shirt.
AT: That is the sound of an Aloha shirt maker wielding a giant industrial blade. And he’s cutting through about 50 layers of brightly patterned fabric, stacked in a pile.
JM: He’s cutting all the puzzle pieces out.
AT: And these cut pieces of fabric will fit together like a perfectly planned jigsaw puzzle. And so this stack of 50 fabric squares will create 50 Aloha shirts.
JM: That’s the front panels, that’s the yoke, and there’s the collars and the pocket over there.
AT: Jason Morgan, the general manager of Kahala Sportswear, is showing me around Kahala’s factory and design studio on Oahu. Kahala makes Aloha shirts and is actually one of the earliest to do so, it’s been around since 1936. And as we watch this worker deftly cut out the puzzle pieces of the stacks of shirts, you can see that the parts are strategically placed along the pattern of the fabric. So Jason informs me with pride…
JM: So we always match our pocket? And so that is why that pocket is specifically placed right there.
AT: When Jason says “match the pocket,” he means that the breast pocket of the shirt doesn’t disrupt the pattern of the shirt. The breast pocket will be a continuation of the design, so it blends in at first and you don’t even notice it.
AT: Seems like its a lot of extra effort?
JM: It’s a lot of extra effort. It signifies a higher quality garment, just more attention to detail.
AT: There are a few ways to tell if you’re looking at a real, authentic high-quality Aloha shirt. If the pocket matches the pattern, that’s a good sign, but it’s not the be-all-end-all. Much of understanding an Aloha shirt is about paying attention to what is on the shirt itself. If tells a story; and it has real references that are specific to Hawaii
JM: If there’s a fish in the print, we know what fish that is and that you can find it out here in the waters around the islands. You know, we’re not just going to slap something on a shirt just to do it because it looks cool.
AT: It’s not about a fantasy vacationland, it’s about a real place. All the animals, all the fruit, all the landmarks will all be real and significant to Hawaii, or to the many many cultures that have melted into it.
AT: How would you describe this?
JM: This is a classic pareo. The pareo is just a simple one color ground, one color print.
AT: The pareo print is a classic pattern of Kahala’s since the 60s. It’s white flowers on a solid color background. This Pareo pattern features breadfruit flowers because breadfruit was a primary staple of a lot of Polynesian cultures.
JM: Going back to what they call the canoe plants, which were the plants the Polynesians took with them as they explored Polynesia.
AT: And as they explored, they discovered Hawaii, and migrated there in significant numbers. These kinds of specific cultural references, or rather specific multicultural references, are what make the difference between Aloha wear and resort wear.
JM: Resort wear is global in its appeal, whereas Aloha wear is more informed by what makes Hawaii unique. It’s something that, you know, bankers wear in downtown Honolulu.
AT: And it’s true, bankers are in Aloha wear in downtown Honolulu. Everybody is. They even wear them for funerals. And part of the logic of Aloha attire is, of course, that it’s just too hot in Hawaii to wear a suit. But that doesn’t explain why the shirts are so colorful and patterned and fun. They could have just as well worn plain white shirts, hypothetically. Truly, to understand the origins of shirt, one must understand the origins of the state.
ZCC: Aloha….blahh, gotta pronounce it correctly… Aloha kakahiaka. That’s “good morning” in Hawaiian.
AT: This is Zita Cup Choy, the historian of The Iolani Palace.
ZCC: Iolani Palace is the last official residence of the monarchs who ruled Hawaii as a combined kingdom for 100 years, and whose predecessors ruled here over a thousand years prior to that.
AT: Iolani Palace is the only actual bona fide palace on United States soil.
ZCC: Throne room, ballroom, reception room. Formal receptions here, receptions in the blue room would have included beverages and entertainment.
AT: Iolani Palace is truly elegant, with sumptuous wooden staircases, and crystal glassware, and what was then cutting edge technology. They had electricity in 1887.
ZCC: Four years before the white house in Washington DC.
AT: The king also installed a telephone!
ZCC: Oh yeah by 1889, Honolulu probably had more phones per person than any other city of its same size anywhere else in the world.
AT: This is all just to say, Hawaii, as an independent constitutional monarchy, transcended its tiny geography. The kingdom was technologically advanced and known diplomatically all over the world.
ZCC: Queen Liliuokalani, our last monarch, is in the portrait on the wall over here. In this portrait, she is wearing the gown that was created to be worn at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in London.
AT: Liliuokalani became Queen of Hawaii in 1891.
AT: She was a musician as well, right?
ZCC: She was a musician. She composed over 150 different songs, including Aloha Oe.
AT: It’s a really famous song.
ZCC: Aloha Oe is actually a love song.
AT: Aloha Oe means “goodbye to you.”
ZCC: It was written in 1878. She saw a woman and a man saying goodbye to each other and it was such a touching scene. As she was coming home she’s humming and writing in her head. She had a wonderful ability to write songs.
AT: So we’re talking about Liliuokalani because she’s a major character in the story of how Hawaii became a territory, and then part of the United States, which led to the rise of the Aloha shirt. And in many ways, this all starts with sugar.
ZCC: Sugar became a minor industry until the civil war when the sugar planters in the United States could no longer grow because they were fighting the war. So the sugar industry skyrocketed in influence and in income.
AT: Most of the sugar plantations were owned by Americans and Europeans.
ZCC: Many of the Hawaiians may not have had the money to be able to buy the property, some of the immigrants did. Particularly those that had family that had money.
AT: The European and American sugar magnates who had been setting up plantations all over the Hawaiian island worked their way into the legislature of Hawaii, to give themselves better deals on shipping and tariffs. They imposed a constitution that dramatically reduced the power of the monarchy into more of a figurehead. The constitution allowed non-Hawaiian citizens to vote.
ZCC: It allowed non-citizen residents of American and European ancestry. Basically, it was those who could read or write English or some other European language, to vote. So it disenfranchised more native Hawaiians, left out the huge Chinese community. If you’re letting the Europeans vote, why can’t we?
AT: This allowed American and European business interests to meddle in Hawaiian government even more. And so, with what little power she had, Liliuokalani tried to get that imposed constitution repealed.
ZCC: Her attempts to put into effect a new constitution caused a group of 13 local residents, of American and European ancestry to create The Committee of Public Safety to protect their own interests. That’s a group that deposed Liliuokalani.
AT: The long and short of it is that well-connected businessmen used the US military as backing for a coup. In 1893, the monarchy was overthrown and a provisional government was established. The Queen was accused of treason.
ZCC: And then they arrested Liliuokalani. They brought her here, to this room. This is called the imprisonment room. This is where she was held under house arrest. Very sparsely furnished, and initially no writing materials.
AT: For 8 months, Liliuokalani was prisoner in this front room of Iolani Palace, where the sunlight streams in hot. And for lack of writing materials, Liliuokalani, and her one permitted companion, sewed. She made a quilt from brocaded silk fabrics and ribbons from her own wardrobe, and she stitched with the names of her friends and supporters. Embroidered are the words “Imprisoned at Iolani Palace…”
ZCC: And then it says “we began this quilt there” which means they completed it elsewhere.
AT: The quilt was probably completed after Liliuokalani moved to her private residence down the street, where she continued her life as a private citizen until she died in 1917.
ZCC: She was considered until her death as queen of Hawaii, and respected as such.
AT: And the queen’s quilt would not be the last time a story of Hawaii would be told in cloth.
ZCC: From overthrow to statehood, Hawaii was in a sort of limbo as a territory. The sugar industry had changed everything, from the constitution to the configuration of the government, to the actual makeup of the population of the Hawaiian Islands.
DB: The Hawaiian Islands from the late 1800s up to 1924 were the scene of many different immigrants coming in to work in the sugar industry.
AT: The sugar plantation owners, mostly white Americans and Europeans, recruited field workers from China, Korea, the Philippines, and Portugal…
DB: But the main group came from Japan.
AT: This is DeSoto Brown, the historian at Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
DB: And the federal government of the United States ended Asian immigration in 1924, but by that time the population of Hawaii was about 40% ethnically Japanese.
AT: So, on Hawaii, there was a huge market for Japanese products. Including Japanese fabric.
DB: The Japanese fabric was a width which was made specifically for kimonos, which is the Japanese national costume. And there was one particular company in Downtown Honolulu, that was called Musa-Shiya.
AT: Musa-Shiya sold Japanese fabric. You could go in, choose the fabric you liked and they would make a shirt for you. So, you could buy a western style collared shirt made out of kimono fabric. It became a fun special thing to buy, especially for the youths.
DB: By about 1936 or 37, local manufacturers then began to have fabric custom made with tropical or Pacific or Hawaiian motifs in addition to the Japanese motifs which were already available.
AT: Kahala, the company you heard cutting the piles of shirts, was established in 1936, and it was one of the first to mass produce Aloha shirts. Because the shirts sold like hotcakes as souvenirs, when Americans first started coming to Hawaii en mass, as soldiers, and as tourists.
AT: So they were always intended to be souvenir shirts?
JM: I think the GIs, there was a desire to have something as a reminder. A token, a souvenir of the experience. And then when they went back home after WWII and all that, they brought that trend back with them.
AT: But Aloha shirts were still niche. People didn’t wear them around in a real way. Even on the territory of Hawaii, it looked like the west had won. Everyone was dressed like they lived in an American metropolis.
JF: Prior to 1962, it wouldn’t be unusual to see everybody in downtown Honolulu wearing a suit and tie! You know, it would be 90 degrees outside with 90% humidity and everyone was walking around with a suit and tie, it was ridiculous.
AT: This is Josh Feldman, CEO of Tori Richard, which is a resort wear company and the parent company of Kahala, the Aloha wear manufacturer. So, Josh’s father, Mort Feldman, was the founder of the company. And even he, the founder of a resort wear company, used to wear a suit and tie to work every day.
JF: My father, in the 1950s and 60s, he’s wearing like a total Mad Men suit! You know, with a pocket square, a dapper looking guy. But its kind of farcical, that you’re in the middle of the Pacific on a tropical island and you’re wearing a suit and tie to work every day?
AT: Josh’s father joined forces with some other Aloha attire manufacturers and they formed a lobbying group called the Hawaiian Fashion Guild, and in 1962, they began a campaign called “Operation Liberation.”
JF: It all started with Operation Liberation, which was to get men to wear Aloha attire in the summer months.
AT: In Operation Liberation, the Hawaiian Fashion Guild gave each state representative and senator two Aloha shirts; and then they took it a step further.
JF: They decided, “Let’s lobby and get the state legislature, just the state legislature, on Fridays to wear products from Hawaii Manufacturers.”
AT: They got a resolution passed in 1967 formally creating “Aloha Fridays.”
JF: Formally creating Aloha Fridays that required all the state legislatures to wear this product.
AT: That meant every Friday members of the state legislature wore Aloha shirts.
JF: And then that spread to the business community as a way to support the manufacturers. And then people, once they started doing that they said, “Hey this is a heck of a lot more comfortable than wearing a suit.” And that went on for a number of years and pretty much every day became “Aloha Friday.”
AT: On any given day of the week in downtown Honolulu, you can see people in Aloha shirts. Not in a Jimmy Buffett vacation kind of way, it’s a workplace casual kind of way. And to this day, this especially ramps up on Fridays. And if you live in the mainland United States this might sound vaguely familiar to you.
JF: Casual Friday has its origins with Aloha Friday.
AT: And “Casual Friday” would go on to affect how we ALL dress at work. Not just in Hawaii, all over the United States.
JF: The Casual Friday campaign started, everyone credits Dockers.
AT: Dockers is a company that makes khakis, and they are owned by Levi Strauss jeans.
JF: They fully acknowledge that the concept was created here.
AT: They do.
TP: We are here on the West coast, Aloha and the prints…
AT: Once Aloha shirts hit the scene, Levis started manufacturing them.
TP: We’d actually been doing Aloha shirts since the 30s here at the Levi Strauss and Company.
AT: This is Tracey Panek, historian at Levi Strauss and Company.
TP: But you needed a companion piece. So In the 90s, we introduced the idea to human resources departments that you could let your workers come to work, dressed one day a week, in something a little bit more casual. Dockers, for instance.
AT: With Dockers, Levi’s created the concept of business casual wear, which they then sold to businesses.
TP: We took the idea to human resources departments. In fact, we created a kit.
TP: “How To Put Casual Business Wear To Work.” And we sent thousands around to the HR departments and in it, it included a guide to what was appropriate wear. And in this guide, here’s a man dressed in his Dockers slacks, and a collared shirt, and other clothing that he could wear.
AT: Aloha Friday came from Hawaii, but Casual Friday came from Levi Strauss and Company.
TP: We are credited, Levi Strauss and Company, for creating Business Casual Fridays. This business casual movement, and now it’s not just one day a week. Business Casual for many workplace environments is ok all through the week.
AT: This might be one of the largest seismic shifts in recent fashion history; this turn to casual. Goodbye silk ties, and garters, and stockings, and knowing how to use an iron. Hello to CEOs in sweatshirts. And it’s not that Casual Friday invented casual wear, that is a MUCH larger phenomenon that has its roots in the rise of leisure time and the rise of sportswear, and the influx of college students dressing more practically to traverse campuses.
What Casual Friday gave us was a foot in the door to help casual wear spread into public life.
DC: Where does casual break In terms of, when does it start to be worn to churches? Regional specific!
AT: This is Deirdre Clemente, historian of 20th-century clothing and fashion and author of the book Dress Casual. And she says business casual was this tipping point, because the office was the last vestige of everyday formal wear.
DC: The office was the last place to break! Which, I think because it’s such a public front? The places where people had more interaction with clients? Like, maybe banks say, or somebody who was a sales rep who had to go into a place, those guys kept the most formal elements of clothes.
AT: And yes, many bankers and politicians still wear suits. But for a lot of industries now, where workers sit in front of a computer, they don’t need to change into heels or iron a jacket.
DC: I think casual dress speaks to Americans desire to be comfortable. I think it speaks to our desire to create, in many ways, a classless society.
AT: Or at least the appearance of a classless society.
DC: So, I think the rise of casual dress in the United States speaks to America as a nation where everyone considers themselves middle class, no matter who you ask.
AT: 70% of Americans, poor or wealthy, call themselves middle class.
DC: Casual dress really speaks to everyone sort of wanting to dress more towards the socioeconomic middle than the edges. It’s almost uncool to dress up too much now.
AT: Dressing up would call too much attention to yourself. And in that way, the Aloha shirt is a beautiful aberration.
SB: When I think of Aloha shirts, I think of my dad because my dad wears almost solely Aloha shirts. He has like probably 100 Aloha shirts because he wears one to work every single day, and he’s like obsessed with buying different ones. Where he’ll get really into the pattern and be like “ooh I really like this textile.” or whatever.
AT: An Aloha shirt is bright. An aloha shirt is colorful and bold, and it tells a story. Yes about a fish or a bird or a plant, but also, quietly, about the whole history of a little chain of islands that left an outsized imprint on the world.