Hawaiian ‘Aloha’ Shirts Become Highly
|The vertical leaf and floral design is printed on a black background. The label says “Kamehameha made and styled in Hawaii.”
from Hawaiian Shirts, by Nancy Schiffer.
A trip to Hawaii for many people is not complete unless they can don a colorful Hawaiian print shirt or muumuu. The currently made mass-produced garments may be found in any tourist shop or clothing store on the islands. What has become very difficult to find, now, however, are the vintage Hawaiian shirts made of silk or rayon that introduced this fashion-art form to the world beginning in the 1930s. These often one-of-a-kind pieces are commanding some startling prices from vintage fashion collectors.
The earliest “aloha shirts”- a term coined by a shirtmaker named Ellery J. Chun - featured traditional Polynesian designs, especially those motifs used in tapa cloth. The early patterns were more geometric and less floral than the majority of those made today.
Silk and cotton were predominant materials used in the early 1920s and ‘30s, although it was difficult to register the dye patterns on silk accurately. The DuPont Company solved that problem in 1924 when it introduced its wonder fabric, rayon. This original rayon formula, which felt silkier than silk, was more durable and very inexpensive to manufacture.
The production of Hawaiian shirts became a viable business in the late 1920s when the cruise ships began making the islands a regular port of call. The aloha shirt became a popular souvenir of any visit to Hawaii. By the mid-1930s, the ever increasing tourist business, augmented by the personnel of the United States Army and Navy, caused two of the small companies that had been making tailor-made shirts to switch to factory-made production. The Kamehameha Garment Company, Ltd. and Branfleet (later renamed Kahala) were the first to make this move. Their products showed exceptional skill in blending island themes, exciting color combinations and quality craftsmanship. These shirts are among the most sought after by collectors today.
During this time, the fabric was generally designed in Hawaii, shipped to California to be printed, and then sent back to Hawaii for the manufacturing process.
One of the most popular designs was the “aloha tapa” of Kahala. It looked like a simple tapa print, but a closer look shows that the word aloha has been designed in the pattern.
Another popular Kahala design was the pineapple tweed. It looked much like hand-woven linen, but was really made from fabric remnants scooped up from the milliner’s floor. The only graphics on the these shirt was the Royal Hawaiian Crest with its motto. In general, Kamehameha patterns were flashier and brighter.
From 1936 to 1939, many small garment businesses opened up. With each of them producing more than a dozen new designs each year, the buyer had thousands of choices from which to select. Those with blue or black backgrounds were most popular during this period.
The silk-screen process was used for the fabric printing. The technique was an excellent one, in that each color was printed alone, and successive colors registered to the previous ones. This gave the designer a great deal of choice in color selection.
Following World War II, the garment industry boomed. The words “Made in Hawaii” were added to most shirts at this time, to stimulate sales. The patterns and colors grew wilder. There was also a strong Far Eastern influence in many of the designs. Since labor costs were much lower in Japan, many Hawaiian-based companies had their shirts designed, printed and/or manufactured there. Traditional designs gave way to tigers, dragons and pagodas. Nevertheless, the overall design and coloring still made these shirts fit the description of “aloha” shirt.
In the 1950s, many “Hawaiian” shirts were manufactured in the mainland United States, also. While some companies used excellent designs and handprinting techniques, there were many others that began making standardized low-priced mass produced shirts available at inexpensive prices. The imagery tended to be standardized and the patterns were smaller, repetitive ones. Some of the designs were so popular - such as hibiscus, ukuleles and leis - that innovative techniques were used to supply a variety of shirts. Using the basic print, the background tints were changed to give the customer a choice of color combinations. A popular hibiscus pattern was produced in twelve different color variations.
There are several things the collector should watch for in a vintage shirt. Both the fabric itself and the construction should show handcrafted quality. Connoisseurs will look for rare designs and unusual color combinations; original labels intact; matched pockets that do not interrupt the pattern; buttons made of kopra seeds, coconut shells, or metal with the Royal Hawaiian crest; and the fabric used. (If it’s made of polyester, it’s not very old.) Shirts with two-flapped pockets were worn for more formal occasions and long-sleeved versions were designed for evening wear. As with any collectible, the condition is also important.
The shirt labels used deserve attention of their own. Sportswear manufactures chose their logos and names to clearly indicate Hawaii. Most used some variation of a palm tree, although surfers, tropical fish and hula girls were all popular. “Made in Hawaii” (or “Made in Honolulu”) was almost always included. Then, as now, labels helped sell clothes, and a designer label helped sales.
Hawaiian Shirts, by Nancy M. Schiffer, (Schiffer Publishing,) shows excellent examples of Aloha shirts from different time periods.
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