Based on the name, it’s easy to deduce where this variety of shirt originated; Hawaii. Typically, Aloha shirts (or more commonly called “Hawaiian shirts” to the mainland United States) are brightly colored with floral patterns or Hawaiian motifs, they have a straight hem line (Aloha shirts are not intended to be tucked in), buttons either down the entire front, or just to the middle of the chest (pullover aloha shirts), and a left chest pocket (often sewn in with enough consideration to match up the pattern with the shirt). There are styles for both men and women; the women’s Hawaiian shirts are often designed with more of a v-neck.
The standard men’s Hawaiian shirts are embellished with traditional Hawaiian quilt designs, tapa designs, and basic floral compositions, in soft colors. Contemporary Hawaiian shirts may not have any Hawaiian themes on them at all, but instead feature drinks, cars, or other elements designed similar to the style traditional Hawaiian shirts. Hawaiian shirts have become more a style of shirt than a Hawaiian theme shirt since they come in so many design motifs that are unrelated to Hawaii.
'Aloha Attire' which encompasses aloha shirts for men, and muumuu (loose-fitting tropical printed dresses) for women, is considered business casual attire often worn at such events as birthday parties, dinners, and weddings. Some aloha shirts are printed using a technique called “reverse printing” which entails printing the inside of the fabric so the colors are more muted on the exterior. It may appear as though the shirt was sewn inside-out, but this is intentional to achieve the desired subdued coloring.
The earliest known sale of the contemporary Hawaiian shirt was in the 1930’s by Chinese salesman, Ellery Chun. Chun worked at a store in Waikiki; King-Smith Clothiers and Dry Goods. His shirts were an attempt to utilize leftover kimono fabrics and began sewing them for tourists. The term “Aloha Shirt” was conceived by the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper and Chun later trademarked the moniker. The popularity of Chun’s shirts grew rapidly starting with local residents, and tourists to the point that they bought every shirt in his store and within a few years major designer labels popped up in Hawaii, producing Aloha shirts en masse. Their popularity has even entered the workplace as a uniquely designed employee uniform.
Since the 1930s, many servicemen and women returned home with aloha shirts made in Hawaii. Due to advancements in air travel, many tourists flocked to Hawaii in the 1950’s adding to the increase in popularity of Aloha shirts. Tourists and other visitors tend to wear bright shirts with complex designs, while natives of the islands favor the more subdued patterns. The shirts and sundresses became a common souvenir for travelers and in many cases they were on the tacky side, but one designer, Alfred Shaheen, revolutionized the Hawaiian garment industry. He brought a high standard of construction, artistically designed prints, and high-quality materials to the industry.
Aloha shirts are considered informal to people on the mainland United States and are often worn in casual settings. However, for local Hawaiians Aloha shirts are the equivalent to a suit and tie and are acceptable in business and all but the most formal of settings. This is primarily due to the nature of the climate in Hawaii. A study of aloha shirts and designs was actually funded by the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce in 1946 and determined that their employees would be able to wear sport shirts from June-October. Economic and cultural concerns about having business attire that was comfortable to wear during the hot Hawaiian summers brought on this change, but it wasn’t until 1947 and the start of the Aloha week festival that aloha shirts were allowed to be worn in business. The festival revitalized people's enthusiasm for traditional Hawaiian music, dancing, and sports. The first festival was held in October 1947, which is typically a dull month for tourism so it benefited the Hawaiian economy during this time as well. By 1974, Aloha week took place on 6 of the islands, was extended to a month, and was renamed the Aloha Festivals. The festivals are said to have had a direct impact on the demand for aloha wear which continues to help support local clothing manufacturers and merchants.
The Hawaiian Fashion Guild, a professional manufacturing association, began promoting aloha wear in 1962 for the goal of making the clothing acceptable business attire. Part of their campaign was to give away two aloha shirts to each Hawaii House of Representatives and Hawaii Senate member. Allowing men to wear ‘aloha attire’ during the summer months was passed and in 1965 a new campaign was held to allow men to wear the shirts on the last business day of the week a few months out of the year, eventually being dubbed “Aloha Friday.” This idea of wearing more “casual” attire spread across the globe by the 1990’s bringing about “Casual Fridays.” Today, Hawaiians accept aloha wear as normal business attire for any day.