It is not called a “Hawaiian shirt” in Hawaii.
In stereotype, folklore, and the Oriental Trading catalog, the adjective “Hawaiian” evokes a place separate from reality. America’s constant backyard luau. Consequently, “Hawaiian” shirts are for retirees, golfers, slackers, and mainland denizens of Vacationland. This misconception of Hawaii, as parlayed through its namesake shirt, parts from the reality of the state, and its own version of the shirt.
In the late 1880s, when Hawaii was an autonomous Constitutional Monarchy, white American planters and business interests completely overran the island. These agricultural businesses bought up acres of land, filled them with laborers they imported from Asia, and then all united to form a group called the “Hawaiian League.” Enlisting a militia of five hundred Caucasian men, the Hawaiian League forced the King of Hawaii to give his executive power over to a cabinet appointed by (you guessed it) the Hawaiian League.
When Queen Lydia Kamaka‘eha Lili‘uokalani took the throne in 1893, she attempted to instate a new constitution, and to take power back from the League. She was subsequently imprisoned in her bedroom for eight months by U.S. troops stationed at Pearl Harbor, until a provisional government was established.
The Queen refused to yield to the provisional government, but believed that the “superior forces of the United States of America,” would be outraged and correct these injustices. She was right, in some ways. President Grover Cleveland declared the coup “a misuse of the name and power of the United States,” and advocated that the Hawaiian monarchy be restored. It wasn’t. In 1898, a resolution for the annexation of Hawaii was passed in both the House and the Senate by simple majority. In July of 1898, President McKinley signed the resolution. Hawaii was annexed.
The shirt became the sartorial manifestation of mass migration to Hawaii, since it’s been said that the origins of the shirt might have come from old kimono fabric, Japanese yukata cloth, Chinese silks, or Polynesian tapa cloth (since American plantation owners had imported laborers from China, Korea, Portugal, and Japan). This is the cultural mixing bowl that birthed Hawaii’s signature hybrid culture, with cuisine that includes everything from spam musubi and portuguese bread. These plantation workers first started wearing a version of the garment: the long-sleeved palaka, which, in the 1920s was shorted and crafted for leisure instead of labor.
The shirt, born of a cocktail of marketing, colonisation, and cultural exchange, boomed in the late 1920s, after the Royal Hawaiian Hotel opened on Waikiki Beach, and the tourism industry exploded. Small local shops began producing custom-tailored versions of the shirts, to sell as souvenirs. The shirts became big business, and in July of 1936, a shirtmaker named Ellery J. Chun was the first to make the shirt on a mass commercial basis, as well as the first to coin its name: the “Aloha Shirt.”
Aloha shirts are not quite the same as Hawaiian shirts. Aloha shirts tend to be silk. They’re a little more expensive. They have a rich tradition of subtle artistry (not so many tiki heads and naked ladies). Aloha shirts are worn tucked in, sometimes belted. Chain restaurants and retailers will even commission special custom Aloha shirts for their employee uniforms (I found a Häagen-Dazs Aloha shirt for sale on Etsy). Aloha shirts are the Hawaiian version of business casual. And they were deliberately established as such.
In 1962, three years after Hawaii officially became a state, a professional association called the Hawaii Fashion Guild started a campaign called “Operation Liberation” to make the Aloha shirt a standard component of business attire in the summer months. This was for the comfort of businessmen (because it’s just too hot for suits, and sweaty businessmen are bad for business) and to support the local garment industry. Of course, Hawaii is always hot, not only in the summer, so in 1965, the guild began lobbying businesses to allow their employees to wear Aloha shirts each Friday, throughout the year. The effort was met with more success: “Aloha Friday” became (and remains) a weekly event in Hawaii.
“Casual Fridays” had been pioneered at Hewlett-Packard in the 1950s, but in the recession of the early 1990s, businesses were looking for ways to raise employee morale. A broader interpretation of Aloha Friday leaned back into California, then out to the rest of the country. Then Friday stretched its legs out into Thursday, Wednesday, and the rest of the week. The Aloha shirt was arguably the little flap of the butterfly wing that brought us to the present moment, where tech founders are giving keynotes in sweatpants.
Forms of modern “workplace casual,” such as hoodies, yoga pants, and running shoes, really evidence a different sort of work: they hint that you are too busy to change before going to the gym, or that you typed all night and then rolled out of bed and typed some more. The Hawaiian shirt, the unknowing bastard grandfather of this whole movement, has been left in the dust. Unlike its graceful brother the Aloha shirt, the Hawaiian shirt is just too casual. Hawaiian shirts more or less signal that you’re not really thinking about work at all. That you are checked out. Into the happy, carefree land of Aloha. A place which does not exist. And never did.