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June 28, 2011

KITSCH OR COUTURE? IT'S ALL A MATTER OF ALOHA

On the 1st of July, Hawaii will celebrate the birthday of a very special icon of the Hawaiian Islands and it's not President Obama.  It is in fact the equally well-known Hawaiian icon - the aloha shirt.

The aloha shirt is Hawaii's most enduring symbol representing the relaxed, laid-back, tropical lifestyle of the Islands and different tales have circulated for decades about the origins of Hawaii's aloha shirt. Some say its roots can be traced to the kapa cloth found throughout the Pacific, made from pounding and dyeing tree bark. Others claim it was inspired by the tail-out shirts of Filipino immigrants, or elegant kimono cloth from Japan, or the vivid floral prints of Tahiti. No one is absolutely sure but the aloha shirt has many ancestors.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the tradition of beautifully sewn printed shirts spread from the Asian dry-goods merchants and home-sewers in Honolulu to the tailors and dress-makers, creating a new style of colourful clothing.

1946 saw the beginning of open-necked sports shirts being approved  for official business attire during the hottest months in Hawai'i from June through to October but the aloha shirt was specifically excluded because of loud patterns.  It was the  following year during the annual Aloha Week celebration that an exception was made to allow the wearing of casual aloha attire - the more colourful the better - for the entire week. With this breakthrough, the trend would continue to expand.

Soon, visitors and locals alike were donning these wearable postcards awash with coconut trees, surfers, outrigger canoes, hula girls, and endless varieties of colourful tropical flowers, birds, and fish.   Duke Kahanamoku, Hawaii's most beloved surfer, Olympic swimming champion and the founder of surfing in Australia, was the earliest and greatest promoter of the aloha shirt. Duke even had his own line of shirts that are widely coveted by collectors today. Many other celebrities from Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley and Tom Selleck of Magnum P.I. were widely photographed wearing the shirts.

The modern era of the aloha shirt began in the 1960s. In 1962, the Senate passed a resolution urging the regular wearing of aloha attire from Lei Day, May 1, to continue throughout the summer months. In 1966, Aloha Friday - the precursor to casual Fridays - came into being and businessmen began the trend of wearing aloha shirts to work. By the end of the 1960s, the wearing of aloha shirts for business dress any day of the week was accepted.  

So whether it is a collectible from the 1930s or a modern style of today, the aloha shirt remains a symbol of the casual, carefree, and graceful Hawai'i lifestyle. It's caught on everywhere - from Australia to LA. Love it or hate it, every tropical destination in the world has adopted the aloha shirt.

web: discoverhawaii.com.au

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