Under the Iconic Hawaiian Shirt

Review: Dale Hope, ‘The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands’

President Truman with members of his squad in Key West, Florida / National Archives
August 7, 2016

The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands is the comprehensive book on Hawaiian shirts. It is to West Coast style, or to an important component of same, what The Official Preppy Handbook is to East Coast style—though less droll, I’m sorry to say.

Originally published in 2000, it has been resurrected for another go-around by the lifestyle clothing company Patagonia to complement the lifestyle of its affluent, outdoor adventure-seeking customers, who no doubt will buy the volume to decorate their vacation bungalows in Seaside, Florida.

As a table-top decoration—to be admired in passing, or through a lazy flipping of the pages—the book is a clear winner; its spine is wrapped in an attractive, confectionary-pink tropical design, and the inside is bursting with photos of textile samples and outrigger canoes and luaus with whole pigs roasting over the spit.

The endless stream of pictures—over 700—is the book’s main attraction. On one page is the angelic Shirley Temple surrounded by Hawaiian children and strumming a ukulele on Waikiki beach. On another is surf legend Duke Kahanamoku in a Shriner’s fez bedazzled with the word ‘Aloha’. A photo centerfold from the 1960s or ‘70s features a dune buggy in candy apple red, a dirt bike, and five gentlemen wearing full-length Hawaiian jumpsuits, looking for all the world like they are preparing for a groovy, Moonraker-style mission into outer space.

The writing has its moments. One caption, a personal favorite, reads, 'The Waikiki beachboys were known for spontaneous beach parties. Chick Daniels cuts loose with his 'cocktail shake' hula along with ... Coconut Willie Cohen, Panama Dave, bass player Mystery Cockett, guitarist Melvin Paoa, Duke Kahanamoku, and Kalakaua Aylett. Seated on the sand with a towel around his neck is Jimmy Hakuole next to Don the Beachcomber." The caption reveals something important about Hawaiian shirts. By a magical property of osmosis, they seemingly imbue all wearers with nicknames. Another amusing photo description reads, 'Elvis [Author’s note: his nickname was ‘The King’] starred in Blue Hawaii in 1961, a musical comedy about a tropical island paradise where he taught hot gals how to surf." I’ll bet the gals had nicknames, too.

Those are some of the highlights of this volume, which make for an amusing read as you sit in the sun with a Hawaiian shirt and a Cuba Libre, as did your correspondent.

Alas, when I said this was the comprehensive history of Hawaiian shirts, I meant it. The book was researched over the course of several years by its author, Dale Hope, and boasts an impressive list of primary source interviews. Hope, an industry man himself, did plenty of sandal-leather reporting for this project, documenting the life stories of this and that famous shirt manufacturer. Which may be interesting for readers possessed utterly, insatiably, diabolically by the Spirit of the Islands, but for everyone else the hundred pages about the business side of the Hawaiian shirt trade will be kind of a drag.

In other places the book veers into tourist trap sentimentality. 'Aloha is a Hawaiian greeting that encompasses the meaning of love, mercy, and compassion," writes surfer Gerry Lopez, AKA Mr. Pipeline, in the prologue. 'Having the aloha spirit meant living and giving these virtues. The aloha shirt is a symbol of the aloha spirit and when a person wears the shirt, he also wears the aloha spirit." The passage is a bit weepy—particularly for a man who acted alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian—but there is a sentimental or nostalgic aspect to Hawaiian shirts that helps explain their lasting popularity. Entire academic papers have been written on the subject, I kid you not: Marcia Morgado of the University of Hawaii-Manoa writes that the Hawaiian shirt trade is kept afloat by 'an assortment of myths that reconstitute the souvenir commodity as an indigenous ethnic art form and a scarce relic of Hawai‘i’s romanticized past."

There’s something to that, as evidenced by 300-page product catalogs like The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands—published by Patagonia, manufacturer of Pataloha by Patagonia. The Hawaiian shirt and tourist industries are engaged in a project of myth-making as much as anything, with a goal of freezing the islands in a romantic, unspoiled past. Hawaiian shirts channel the myth in their designs. They present scenes of paradisiacal bounty and leisure, as though painted by an uncharacteristically upbeat Paul Gauguin. Modern life rarely intrudes on these scenes, with the exception of a tiki bar here and there, a sailboat, an ocean liner (in an extreme exception, I saw an excellent Hawaiian shirt decorated with shark-nosed P-51 Mustangs screaming above the seas, terrorizing flocks of gulls).

Some of the myth—e.g. the Hawaiian shirt’s status as an 'indigenous ethnic art form"—is based on dubious historical interpretation. Dale Hope draws a tenuous connection between the Hawaiian shirt and earlier forms of dress in the Pacific like the Tahitian pareu, but it seems clear the Hawaiian shirt is a product of the late 1920s at the earliest, a syncretic blend of patterns, fabrics, and tailoring from Tahiti, Japan, and other places in the Pacific.

Other parts of the myth have more substance, and are likely fixed in the popular imagination independent of the marketing efforts of the Hawaiian tourist board. The shirt will forever be associated with the immediate postwar period, when it experienced breakout popularity. U.S. servicemen returning from a vicious struggle were won over by the islands. What followed was something of a cultural craze, epitomized by the 1949 Christmas song 'Mele Kalikimaka" by Bing Crosby (who was something of an island nut himself). Sales of Hawaiian shirts boomed, such that the colorful garments would become a staple at neighborhood barbecues and bowling leagues, and would even be worn by the president on the cover of TIME Magazine. The Hawaiian shirt was a symbol of a confident nation blessed with tremendous prosperity, coming into maturity as a superpower. The aura lingers on the shirts even today, as they are worn by fraternity brothers and aging relatives with Magnum P.I. levels of chest hair exposure.

Extra layers of myth would accrete in the decades to come, adding a layer of rebelliousness exemplified by Brad Pitt’s character in the philosophically disturbed movie Fight Club. The shirts would weather a dark age in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, when they were paired with puka shell necklaces, spiked hair, and cargo shorts—the ultimate libido suppressor.

Still the Hawaiian shirt survived, in large part due to its merits. It is a delightful article of casual menswear. It is breezy; it is colorful; it allows one to wear flora and fauna and spearfishing islanders on one’s very back. It might leave you with a nickname like Coconut Bob. May the Hawaiian shirt thrive as long as warm-weather climes exist, and confident men in which to wear it.

Published under: Book reviews