Afterthoughts: When Did Aloha Shirts Get So Cool?

Gone are the days of old fuddy-duddy aloha shirts. Local designers like Reyn Spooner, Roberta Oaks Power, Sig and Kūha‘o Zane have made the aloha shirt look cool.
illustration: kelsey ige

This being the Hawai‘i fashion issue, a month in which we celebrate the vibrancy and spark of local designers, it’s probably time for a confession: I’ve been living without aloha. Well, aloha shirts, at least.

Although I grew up in the Islands and consider myself at least kind of local, I currently own exactly two aloha shirts. And those only reached my closet as birthday gifts.

Aloha shirts just never seemed like me. Back in high school and my early 20s, when one’s personal style starts to gel, they were the kind of thing dads wore. They were big and floppy and said one of two things:

The bright, colorful ones with exuberant prints? Those were for older, Jimmy Buffett types—the kind of local haole who owned a boat and always kept the top three buttons undone, to let his chest hair ruffle in the breeze.

And then there were the aloha shirts with muted, reverse-print designs, worn by older businessmen as the Bishop Street uniform. Tuck them into your slacks or keep the flat-cut bottoms loose—they still screamed boxy conservatism to me.

I opted instead for long-sleeved collared shirts, the kind you find at Banana Republic. You might say it was the kind of shirt my dad’s dad would have worn. Every generation’s youth might rebel against their parents’ style, but it all comes back around eventually, doesn’t it? The button-down long-sleeve became my personal uniform, never much variation on the prints, usually with the sleeves rolled up. (Hey, I’m wearing one in my headshot on this very page!) My wardrobe didn’t quite reach the minimalism of Steve Jobs’ perpetual black turtleneck, but let’s just say I like the way he thought.

And so the years passed, with me not giving those old fuddy-duddy aloha shirts much more thought.

But while I stayed the same, aloha shirts, somewhere along the line, got cool. Reyn Spooner, for decades the epitome of the traditional banker look, came out in 2010 with its Modern Collection, which kicked out the old “billowing sail” profile in favor of trim-fit, tailored shirts. Other local designers like Roberta Oaks Power expanded the idea, remixing vintage looks into new configurations, adding flourishes such as cuffed sleeves. And Sig and Kūha‘o Zane brought an authentically Hawaiian feel to their prints—sort of the sartorial equivalent of when ‘ōlelo-Hawai‘i music exploded during the 1970s Hawaiian Renaissance, superceding all those old hapa-haole records.

The revamp of the aloha shirt worked. Bam, suddenly it seemed like four out of five 20-somethings in Kaka‘ako and Chinatown were pairing their skinny jeans and obscure-label shades with aloha prints.

Local-style now actually meant local style, with local design and manufacture becoming something to flaunt. I knew things had reached a critical mass when my friend Philip—a wedding videographer and all-around dapper guy—posted up a quick video on Facebook showcasing his Roberta Oaks collection, seven shirts strong, and got more than 100 likes.

I’ve been watching this whole aloha revolution for a while now, bemused, feeling no need to jump on board. But then, this year, for my birthday, my sister Mary sewed me an aloha shirt. And while most gifts of clothing end up being ill-fitting or otherwise not quite right, this was nice and trim, with a subtle, dark aloha print. It felt surprisingly like me. When I wore it to the office for the first time, five different people commented favorably on my new look, and it’s since worked its way into my regular rotation of work clothes.

Guess it’s time to go shopping, and say aloha to a few new shirts.

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