The aloha shirt is a true product of modern Hawai combination of Polynesian images, Asian fabrics, and haole technology and marketing. In the late 1920s, Chinese merchant Ellery Chun ran King–Smith Clothiers & Dry Goods in Waikiki. Among his inventory were rolls of kimono fabric for his Japanese customers. At some point, a Chinese lantern flashed over Chun’s head and he began cutting and sewing shirts from the leftover pieces. The first notice for Chun’s newly named “Aloha Shirts” appeared in the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper on June 28, 1935.
Aloha shirts were an instant hit with locals, tourists, military personnel, and surfers. Within a couple of years, small tailor shops throughout the Islands began manufacturing and selling aloha shirts en masse. Aloha Shirt became a registered trademark in 1936. Hawai’ian resident Herbert Briner saw the alarming production of these shirts, bought an existing uniform manufacturer, and transformed it into Hawai’i’s first ready-to-wear garment manufacturer. He named his firm for the great Island king, and Kamehameha aloha shirts became famous.
In 1937, Nat Norfleet and George Brangier got in on the act at 1704 North King Street, next to one of the pioneers of Hawai’ian garment manufacturing, Wong’s Products. “We began like nearly everybody else in the business—not with a pair of shoestrings but with one shoestring between the two of us,” says Norfleet. “Red McQueen had brought back from the 1932 Olympics in Japan some shirts made out of silk kimono cloth. We copied them to produce our first aloha shirts.
They were absolutely horrible, but Elmer Lee had a stand in front of the old Outrigger Canoe Club where he sold coconut milk and pineapple juice, and he sold our horrible shirts.” Norfleet and Brangier called their company Kahala. In 1939, they moved into a factory on Kapiolani Boulevard, perfectly situated to supply the endless line of servicemen soon flocking to the Islands to fight the Japanese.
World War II was ended by a man who liked aloha shirts. President Harry S. Truman was just one of many celebrities and public figures who proudly wore aloha shirts and inspired their worldwide popularity. John Wayne and Duke Kahanamoku endorsed major designer labels while Bing Crosby, Arthur Godfrey, and Johnny Weissmuller entertained in their loose, flowing sportshirts printed with everything from palm trees to ukuleles to wave-riders.
In 1948, seventeen-year-old California surfer Walter Hoffman took his first trip to Hawai’i. “The first thing I did was go to Kahala and buy my trunks and shirts. Then I spent the summer surfing,” he remembers. That trip changed Hoffman’s life. He returned to California with a steamer trunk full of aloha prints to steer the family business Hoffman Fabrics away from woolens and into the brave new world of rayon and polyester. Hoffman Fabrics went on to supply material to almost every major clothing company, including start-up money for Ocean Pacific, which would become the mother of all surfwear firms.
Out of the 1940s, the aloha shirt’s popularity grew as travel to Hawai’i became easier with faster ocean liners and then air travel. From Here to Eternity also gave the aloha shirt a kick in the pants. The movie was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards including Best Costume Design a good call as costume designer Jean Louis made Montgomery Clift look good lying dead in a ditch in an aloha shirt. In black and white.
By 1959, the world was bubbling for the Islands and aloha shirts.
The first passenger jet arrived in Honolulu that year as Hawai’i became a state. Hawai’i’s tourist industry was about to explode: Kahala did one million dollars in sales in 1959 while in 1960, Kamehameha shipped thirty-five tons of garments to the mainland. And then in 1961, Elvis Presley starred in Blue Hawaii as Chad Gates, a young Hawai’ian who gets out of the Army and returns to the Islands to surf, chase chicks, and hang out at his shack at Haunama Bay, playing the ukulele and slack key guitar with his buddies. Elvis was in his prime in 1961, and he made the aloha shirt look even better.
In vivid Technicolor.