In Aloha Shirt: the Spirit of the Island, Dale Hope shares a few different stories about the origin of this American classic. One model was made in the 1920s by Gordon Young’s mother, who made sport shirts out of printed cotton yukata cloth that was normally used for kimonos. In 1935, tailor Musa-Shiya Shoten advertised RTW and MTO “Aloha shirts”. However, the term was trademarked later in 1937 by the Chun family who sold similar shirts (also made from kimono fabric) in King-Smith Clothiers. There are other stories of course, but the main idea was that the shirt was born during a time when men were starting to opt for “sportswear” or casual dress.
Overall, it’s pretty similar to sport shirts (loop/camp/cuban collars, whatever you want to call them) in design. This most distinctive feature is the band-less collar, which results in the floppy open collar that lays flat on the shoulders of the shirt. The garment has a clean french front and a square bottom, meaning that it can be worn tucked or untucked, adding to its casual nature. The aloha shirt retains all these features with the addition of an exploded floral pattern or scenes; later patterns would adopt more vertical, tiki-inspired designs.
I personally like the older designs that are large-scale and have some space between the designs. There’s nothing wrong with tighter, vertical print shirts, but they tend to look a bit more modern than I’d like and bit too Tommy Bahama.
In terms of material, most of the 1930s-1940s shirts I’ve seen were made of rayon or delicate voiles (in cotton or rayon); later, they would be made from cotton or polyester.
Before the tee shirt and OCBD took over as the go-to shirt for men in the 1960s, aloha shirts (and by extension, plain sport shirts) were a distinctive type of shirt in the 1930s-1950s. Images of the Beach Boys, Elvis, and Frank Sinatra rocking colorful aloha shirts come to mind instantly.
While some think that they are a bit old school to wear now, I heartily disagree. We’ve been seeing the return of camp collar shirts in general, thanks to a couple of fashion forward guys at Pitti wearing them over their jacket lapels like youth in the 1950s. We’ve also seen it come in the mainstream fashion world, being the shirt of choice of Harry Styles, rocking vibrant full cut aloha shirts to contrast his skinny black jeans and slick chelsea boots. It’s certainly something to consider if you’re feeling fatigued from your tie-less linen shirts and Friday polos.
Embracing the uniqueness of the alohas shirt is all apart of the fun. The bold florals and painted scenes are exactly what summer style is all about! When I wear an aloha shirt with tailoring, I usually opt for chinos or summer weight trousers and loafers as an updated 1940s-1950s casual look. I know that Kenji Cheung and Ethan Newton of Bryceland’s have done similar looks.
You could even wear it with a pale linen suit, using the jacket to tone down the bold print. I’ve begun to wear aloha shirts with pleated shorts and a chore coat, as it’s starting to get hotter. For those of you wary of the 1980s/Miami Vice connotations, you can always opt for the classic rockabilly look by wearing an aloha shirt untucked with selvedge denim. Maybe leave the pomade at home and go with slimmer denim and canvas sneakers to make it a bit more contemporary.
In addition to some images to serve as outfit inspiration, I’ve included a couple of places where you could pick up a shirt for yourself! They vary in price and quality, but I think there’s something here for everybody.
Two Palms was my first real foray into wearing aloha shirts. They are extremely affordable MiUSA at around $45 (with free US shipping) which means that they can be your gateway too! Their cotton shirts are cheaper, but I prefer their rayon ones in the vein of being “traditional”. It might take some careful perusing through their website to separate the “good shirts” from the more “dad vibe” ones, but you can’t go wrong with most of them. Surprisingly, they have pretty solid construction despite being on the lower end of the spectrum and they even take care to match the fabric on their chest pocket. The only caveats are that the cut is pretty full and the collar is pretty small compared to the vintage ones; I’m sure that you guys will find the latter more desirable since it’s easier to wear in the modern day.
You’ve gotta hand it to J. Crew for making a pretty good Hawaiian shirt. They’re about $10 more than Two Palms and they only have a few models to choose from, but it’s still a good buy if you lean more toward shopping in person. Instead of rayon, these J. Crew aloha shirts are made in linen-cotton, which is a bit more wearable (and washing machine friendly) if you’re not used to the traditional fabric. According to the website, these also have a roomier fit, but I would assume that it’s slimmer than the ones from Two Palms.
I always have a soft spot for shirts that display scenes, because they’re different than the aloha shirts that you normally see. It also has the bonus effect of looking a bit more old school, lifted almost directly from the styles in the 1940s-1950s. Like the Two Palms shirts, they also feature a breast pocket that is carefully matched to the shirt.
Onia makes a few great camp shirts and I’ve included a picture of their most “aloha” one here. It’s pretty much the same thing as the other ones, with a modest collar and a chest pocket (that again is not matched). The fabric is cotton voile making it extremely delicate (and hand-wash only), so I would say to wear with caution. It does seem ideal to wear when relaxing on vacation!
I’ve gotta say that these ones from Gitman really hit the spot. Like the Avanti ones, they have a bit more interest than the typical florals, but they also bring back the wide collar! They also do away with the chest pocket in order to maintain a clean front.
RRL takes us back to the original 1940s-1950’s manufacturing with their rayon camp shirts. Like the Gitman ones, there’s just something so much more interesting when the prints are something more than oversized florals. According to the official website, this particular design was based on 1930’s tattoo art, which I think is super cool. The shirt also features two breast pockets (making them similar to plain sportshirts of the era) and also opts for a modest collar.
RRL also has an indigo camp shirt with a more straightforward floral print, while Polo RL has more scenery based prints for half the price.
Sun Surf is probably the best reproduction brand for aloha shirts, which makes sense considering Japan’s love affair with Americana. I’ve come across these in some of my favorite vintage stores, and they’re practically indistinguishable from true vintage pieces apart from the fact that the Sun Surf ones are new. Being a detailed reproduction, a lot of their prints are influenced directly from old garments; most of the time they go all out with their large-scale, bold prints. This is what makes them my favorite, since it’s a great way to get a true vintage flair that is completely different than the more standard florals and smaller scale scenes that you can find in the previous examples. They also keep the long, floppy 1940s-1950s collar and make them in the traditional rayon. You could own the character and wear it by itself or cover it up with a chore coat or casual jacket to tone it down.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a lot of places to find them other than a few boutiques, but they do pop up occasionally on Rakuten, Grailed, and eBay.
Brycelands stocks a selection from Groovin High, another Japan-based company. Like the Sun Surf ones, these are damn good designs lifted from 1940s-1950s shirts. The ones sold by Bryceland’s aren’t necessarily true aloha shirts since the prints are more geometric than floral/island based, but they still can be used for a similar look. The shirts are made up of luxurious rayon/silk and have a wide collar, two breast pockets, and long sleeves.
We can’t have a proper list without a bit of luxury. This voile shirt by Prada is really growing on me! The coloring is vibrant and leans more 80s-90s rather than strictly 1950s; think DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet. In addition to having an amazing beach scene painted on the back, this shirt is made of delicate voile and features black mother of pearl buttons. At a certain point, you’ll just have to go ahead and go all in on the price; you won’t find another one like it.