Rob Culpepper

Hawai‘i’s flashy, freewheeling shirts have an equally colorful history, and make for brilliantly beachy wall art.

By Rachael Burrow and Betsy Cribb

When Ellery Chun returned to his native Hawai‘i at the height of the Great Depression, the Yale graduate realized he’d need a gimmick to keep his family’s Honolulu dry-goods shop afloat. Chun found his answer in leftover yukata cloth, a lightweight cotton used for Japanese kimonos. He added tropical Hawaiian designs (created by his sister), and then had tailors fashion the cloth into shirts. He styled them untucked and sold them as “aloha shirts.”

Chun wasn’t the only one who’d had a yukata-inspired stroke of genius. There were others—two companies, Musashiya and Surfriders Sportswear, made the shirts up until World War II—but Chun had the savvy to trademark the “aloha shirt” term. Later, WWII veteran Alfred Shaheen got in on the action, hiring local artists to create shirts with Hawaiian designs and mass producing them. The shirts’ popularity soared, and everyone from surfers to servicemen to Elvis rocked them.

Today, aloha shirts still have major star power: Honolulu-born singer Bruno Mars is known to sport them on stage, and they’re equally hot as beach house decor when framed and hung like art on the wall. Online sources such as vintage-aloha-shirts.com and The Hana Shirt Co. sell them for anywhere from $50 to about $2,500, depending on factors like the design’s artist and the intensity of the color. Long-sleeved aloha shirts are exceptionally rare: One sold at auction for more than $10,000!

WATCH: A Perfect Weekend in Oahu, Hawaii:

You Can Thank Hawai'i for Casual Fridays
In 1962, the Hawaiian Fashion Guild gifted every member of the State Senate and House of Representatives two aloha shirts to wear around the capitol. Shortly after, the Senate passed a resolution declaring aloha shirts appropriate work attire for summer Fridays. It took a few decades, but eventually the practice of breezy Friday attire reached the contiguous United States (as an inexpensive morale boost during the early 1990s recession), and “casual Friday” was born.