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On Choosing a Good Hawaiian Shirt

On Choosing a Good Hawaiian Shirt

Elvis in hawaiian shirt ukelele
As I write this post, I’m wearing one of my new Hawaiian shirts I bought myself for Tiki Month. I slip one on before I go down to the Basement Bar to help get in the Tiki mood.

Really?
You have to change clothes just to mix up a drink?
It sounds a bit excessive to me.

Of course I don’t have to. I want to. For Tiki to work, you need to commit to it. Not for a month, like I’m doing, but for however long you are at it—even if only for an hour at a time. The more you do to put yourself in the mood, the more fun Tiki becomes.
One of the easiest ways to change your mood, even your personality, is to change your skin. Don’t just wear the Hawaiian shirt, rock the Hawaiian shirt. As the (sorta) great Larry Dierker said, Have you ever seen anyone with a Hawaiian shirt on who wasn’t having a good time?

At the start of the month, I went looking for some cool new Tiki wear. And I also went looking for some answers. I found them both (via the magic of Google) at GoodHawaiianShirts.com. This website had a huge selection, and I was surprised at the prices, so I ordered three, instead of the two I intended. Then I dropped a line to the contact email and started a fun conversation with Bill Newton, the sales manager and co-owner. He taught me a lot about the shirts, and pointed me to some good web resources as well.

First off, the industry name for the Hawaiian shirt is Aloha shirt, a term trademarked by the Father of the Hawaiian Shirt, Ellery Chun of Waikiki. I suppose Tiki aficionados should briefly remove their hats at mention of his name. In about 1935, Chun made his first shirts out of old kimono fabric which wasn’t selling. This was concurrent, but not connected, with the start of the Tiki movement.
In Hawaii, the Aloha shirt is worn as business, even occasionally as formal wear. This reflects both the climate and the culture of the islands, and you can see a similar process in Bermuda and other tropical British colonies with the adoption of the Bermuda short.

Choosing one of these shirts can be hard, as selections can be as wild the individual prints. I counted over 350 styles just of men’s shirts on Bill’s site, so it helps to try to narrow your search. Bill told me there are two general categories of Aloha shirts, Traditional (or Hawaiian) and Contemporary (or Californian). Roughly speaking, Traditional Aloha shirts will have a floral or native tapa pattern, whereas Californian Aloha shirts have louder colors and will probably have things other than flowers on them.

Godd Hwaiian Shirts Green TraditionalTraditional designs generally cover the whole shirt evenly, and the colors are usually relatively muted. A common design choice is called Reverse Printing, where the shirt is made with the printed side of the fabric on the inside, muting the pattern even more. This kind of Aloha shirt is particularly popular for Hawaiian business wear, and is often worn tucked inside the waistband. I had thought that reverse print had died out, but Bill told me that style of Traditional Aloha just doesn’t sell well on the mainland anymore. He also was clear that while he sells a lot of Traditional-styled shirts, the ones that sell over here are still quite different than the ones “real” Hawaiians wear.

Jumping Fish (Cream) Good Hawaiian ShirtsContemporary Aloha shirts are the much better selling, but less authentic, Aloha style. These shirts have designs with all sorts of things, such as pictures of “woodies”, or pictures of WWII aircraft (or cocktails). Another type of California Aloha shirt has scenic depictions of palm trees, beaches, etc. A final type of contemporary shirt is the one with the horizontal floral band, usually with a smaller band around the sleeves.

In either case, the vast majority of Hawaiian shirts actually manufactured in Hawaii are made of cotton, with some rayon, and very little silk. Interestingly, the most expensive shirts on Bill’s site are the Rayon ones, not the cotton. All sell right now in the $30 to $50 range. When Bill and his partner started Good Hawaiian Shirts, they wanted to support and nurture actual Hawaiian made garments, so all their main inventory is Hawaiian made. But their industry is under heavy price pressure from Southeast Asian makers, and business is business. If you want to compare, they have a page of Low-Cost Imported Hawaiian Shirts as well.
I asked Bill what his favorite Aloha shirt was that hung in his own closet. His two favorites are a solid blue bowling shirt with a vertical stripe of flowers on the left side, and a reverse print floral for business meetings. Neither are available from his website, since they wouldn’t sell well enough on the mainland. Here is his runaway best-selling shirt:
Sunset Palm in blue from Good Hawaiian Shirts
Please understand, advises Bill, no local would ever wear this shirt, unless he’s making a joke. If you want to wear an Aloha shirt on your trip to the islands so you’ll fit in, choose carefully. On the other hand, if you are hipping out at a Tiki bar in LA, or warming up in your basement in Ohio with a Zombie, this is a great shirt! Remember, for the glorious gonzo that is Tiki, design authenticity is not a requirement. Bill would just want you to remember that unless your shirt was made on the islands, don’t call it a “Hawaiian shirt”!
Lots of people besides Tiki lovers buy Aloha shirts, of course. Bill told me his favorite “person” in the world is “Hawaiian Shirt Guy”, the guy with twenty shirts in his closet, who wears them whenever he is happy, and makes everyone he meets think that Aloha shirt = Happy.

Nick Nolte Hawaiian Shirt
Possibly NOT Bill’s idea of Hawaiian Shirt Guy

Another set in interesting customers he has are an ice fishing club who buy their shirts two sizes too big, so they can wear them over the top of their parkas. Those guys may not know it, but they understand Tiki….

No matter what style you prefer, whether you have only one shirt or thirty, if you are going out or staying in, or if you are throwing a party or just going away for an evening with your significant other, The Shirt is essential equipment. Just ask the experts.


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  1. Doug,

    that’s more research into Aloha wear than I’ve ever done!

    My personal favorites are the barkcloth shirts with brass oriental-design buttons, I’m sure a fancier term can be used there by those who know such things. The Barkcloth imitates tapa, with a lovely grainy texture. I don’t know about these being made much anymore, but have some lovely examples in my closet. Heck, one even had the original tag from Sears on it!

    Darn I love Tiki month.

    -TT

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  2. Doug

    7 February

    I love it too. I’d bet shirts like you have are probably still made in Hawaii, but for locals in locals’ stores.
    I got lots more stuff about Hawaii and the shirts, but I couldn’t make most of it fit with Tiki at all, so I’ll save it for another day.

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  3. jgodsey

    7 February

    thank you for this. i had JUST bought an Aloha Shirt from an online vendor. there are plenty of gently used or new old stock online. I was amazed at the variety from the muted tones to the wild and loud, it didn’t take me long to find one that was ‘ME’ – the quick tips you shared are terrific.

    now i need to find me a couple of tiki mugs that say ME as well.

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  4. Doug

    7 February

    I got good stuff coming there too!

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  5. DJ HawaiianShirt

    8 February

    I am definitely one of those “Hawaiian Shirt guys”.

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  6. Dr. Bamboo

    12 February

    If anyone really wants to delve into the history of the aloha shirt, I highly recommend this book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Aloha-Shirt-Spirit-Islands/dp/1582700346#noop

    It’s got tons of great photos and illustrations, and the historical info and anecdotes are very entertaining.

    And since at any given time I have at least a dozen aloha shirts in my closet, I guess I’m a “Hawaiian shirt guy” too.

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  7. Lena O

    2 March

    Great article. Keep writing these good stuff and you’ll have me coming back for more.

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  8. Frank

    18 August

    You need to research where the shirts are made. Two of the larger established makes, Tori Richard and Jams, still produce in Hawaii. One of the old-times Reyn Spooner makes everything in Asia but still charges you like they were made in Hawaii. The quality is not the same either.

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  9. Doug

    18 August

    Frank, Bill discussed this with me. He also notes that he sells both real and ersatz foreign shirts. But he clearly delineates between the two.

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  10. Aloha Shirts, commonly known as Hawaiian Shirts, originated in Hawaii back in the 30’s. They represent the beach lifestyle but are becoming increasingly popular as everyday casual wear all over the world.

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  11. If people only knew how clothing in Hawaii was really made…

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