The Aloha Shirt: A Fashion Revolution Born in 1930s Hawaii

When visitors to Hawaii in the 1930s started wearing brightly patterned Hawaiian shirts, the style spread fast. Celebrities and political leaders joined the crowd, and Hawaiian shirts became a status symbol among the wealthy.

Early designers such as John Meigs studied Polynesian tapa cloth, including from Tahiti, in their development of early aloha shirt designs. However, the identity of the first shirtmaker remains a mystery.


Whether you like floral designs, beach scene prints, or a more abstract design, there is something about the Aloha shirt that draws you in. It’s a symbol of Hawaii’s unique culture, which is why it’s so popular around the world.

According to author Hope Bradley, the Aloha shirt is a result of a “weaving together of cultures and styles” from five different sources. She believes the shirt was originally a “daydream of paradise” that was popularized by celebrities such as U.S. Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, Elvis Presley, and Bing Crosby.

Then, after WWII, when many American servicemen came back home from Asia and the Pacific, they brought Aloha shirts for their loved ones. From there, the shirt grew into the fashion icon it is today. It’s even been featured in movies such as Romeo + Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Wearing an Aloha shirt can be a great way to connect with fellow travelers across the ocean, and the meaning behind the shirt is a great reminder of what’s important in life.


While the floral motifs of hibiscus flowers, plumeria blossoms, and bird of paradise are the most commonly used designs in custom hawaiian shirts, the meaning behind these symbols goes far deeper than their visual appeal. These motifs symbolize delicate beauty, positive energy, and a connection to the natural environment that is unique to Hawaii.

Similarly, nature-inspired patterns depicting palm trees, waves, and sea creatures represent the close relationship between Hawaiians and their surroundings. By wearing a Hawaiian shirt adorned with these images, individuals can feel as though they are part of this awe-inspiring landscape.

In the 1920s, Gordon Young wore his mother’s Aloha shirt to the University of Washington, igniting a national craze for the brightly colored shirts. While designers such as John Meigs drew inspiration from kimonos and Tahitian tapa cloth, they also introduced more Hawaiian-specific motifs into the designs of the shirts. This increased local focus fueled the continued popularity of the Hawaiian shirt, which soon made its way into the wardrobes of celebrities and Hollywood elite.


In addition to the vibrant colors and patterns, Hawaiian shirts also contain meaningful symbols. For example, hibiscus flowers signify love and beauty while ohelo berries symbolize protection. These symbols help people connect with each other and embody the aloha spirit.

The first Hawaiian shirts were made of Asian fabrics, such as kimono silks, and they featured Oriental motifs. However, in the 1930s they started to incorporate local motifs. This change was the first step toward creating a style that represented Hawaiian culture.

Today, people from all over the world wear Hawaiian shirts to represent their appreciation for the islands. Many are unaware that these shirts have a deep connection with Hawaiian history and culture.

Despite being co-opted by the boogaloo movement, Hawaiian shirts still embody aloha. The boogaloo movement has been linked to real-world violence, but people associated with the group insist that they are not advocating for violence. Nevertheless, many fashion brands have announced that they will not use Hawaiian shirt designs on their clothing.

Cultural significance

While some may view Hawaiian shirts as kitschy, they remain a popular cultural icon. They symbolize Hawaii’s unique land and people to both locals and visitors alike. They also serve as a form of self-expression and pride for many.

Although the exact origins of the aloha shirt are up for debate, one of the first recorded examples was created by Ellery Chun in 1936. He used leftover fabric from kimonos to create these brightly-colored, short-sleeved shirts. He then marketed them using the trade name “aloha” and an advertisement in the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper.

The popularity of the Hawaiian shirt continued to grow after Hawaii became a US state in 1959. Mainland manufacturers wanted to cash in on the new fashion trend, so they started creating their own versions of the island-inspired shirts. Over the years, many celebrities have been spotted wearing Hawaiian shirts. These include Tom Selleck, Jon Lovitz, Jared Leto, and Bruno Mars. The shirts have even made appearances in movies like “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”, “Raising Arizona” and “Weekend at Bernie’s”.