Do You Need an Aloha Shirt in Hawaii?

One of the questions most frequently asked by first-time travelers to Hawaii is “Do I really need an Aloha shirt?” While many teens and young people are more likely to wear the same trendy yet lightweight clothing found on the mainland, older generations will know the Aloha shirt has been the unofficial ambassador of Hawaii for decades.

For over 75 years, these shirts have come to symbolize a lifestyle that honors quality before quantity while reflecting the beauty of this captivating state.

For those who hope to feel the incredible Aloha spirit, the bold designs and brilliant colors allow travelers to immerse themselves in Hawaiian culture. Travelers who visit with a closed mind and the mentality of a tourist without a willingness to try something new—constantly complaining, for example, that “This isn’t the way we do it back home”—are likely to leave feeling like they missed something.

And they did.

Throwing on an Aloha shirt is one of the easiest ways to boost your mood and even enhance your personality. Have you ever seen anyone wearing one who didn’t look happy?

Even Hawaiian businessmen are known to wear Aloha shirts to the office, and most businesses in the islands encourage it. Of course, there are differences in the type of shirt. The business-style Aloha shirt is more refined than the tourist version, with better construction, better colors and more intricate patterns; it’s not quite as flashy and bright as the tourist versions.

Hawaii is all about fitting in and getting along with the group. The more you’re willing to do whatever it takes to become a part of the community, the more you’ll earn the locals’ trust and respect.

What You Need to Know about the Shirt’s History

Although many people outside of Hawaii refer to this article of clothing as a “Hawaiian shirt,” the official name used throughout the islands and within the industry is Aloha shirt. Ellery Chun is the man credited with popularizing the shirts, although he didn’t exactly invent them.

In the 1920s, when American tourists began to arrive via cruise ships, tailors made these custom shirts, and the locals started wearing them to weddings and other big events and celebrations.

Mr. Chun was a native Hawaiian who graduated from Yale in 1931 with a degree in economics. He then turned a Chinese dry goods shop in Honolulu into the first mass producer of Aloha shirts. That’s when they got their official name.

Buying an Authentic Aloha Shirt

An Aloha shirt should be the real deal and not a cheap knock-off. There are generally two types of men’s Aloha shirts: the open-collar shirts sometimes referred to as camp or resort shirts and the shirts with button-up collars, such as those made by Kahala or Wave Shoppe.

Designs and construction methods may vary, but both are considered authentic as long as the shirt has a full button-up closure and short sleeves; pullover shirts are never considered true Aloha shirts.

A traditional Aloha shirt should have a pointed collar. The most desirable buttons are made of coconut wood; however, most vintage shirts have metal buttons, and plastic is as common as wood. Oyster- and abalone-shell buttons are generally found only on top-of-the-line shirts.

A few of the best makers in the islands include Reyn Spooner, a highly respected maker with 60 patterns of the classic Aloha shirt to his credit, and Tori Richard. Bailey’s Antique & Aloha Shirts in Kapahulu has a huge selection of vintage shirts and is always a fun place to shop. Cooke Street is an underrated brand that makes beautiful shirts in a wide selection of patterns.

Choosing and Wearing Your Aloha Shirt

Select a shirt that may be a size bigger than what you’d usually wear; it should feel fairly loose and comfortable. Keep in mind that as soon as it’s washed it will experience some shrinkage, although higher-quality fabrics tend to shrink less than shirts made of the cheaper stuff.

An Aloha shirt is meant to be loose-fitting and extremely comfortable, keeping you cool during the peak heat of the sun. A button up–collar shirt should be able to button at the neckline, allowing two fingers to slip easily between your neck and the collar.

It’s always acceptable to wear your shirt unbuttoned—remember that the Aloha shirt represents having fun and enjoying life! In fact, standard practice is to leave the top two buttons undone, implying a carefree lifestyle.

Sleeves should come down to the top of your elbow when your arms are in a relaxed position, and when standing tall the hem should be about 3 1/2″ to 4″ below your belt line. Wear the shirt un-tucked and let it fly with the breeze—this is the way of the island locals.

No other piece of clothing more accurately captures the amazing energy and spirit known throughout the islands. Wear it with pride!

If you are a sucker for a souvenir, check out Hawaii Flower Lei. They have the ultimate selection of Hawaiian gifts that you can buy right now. Don’t wait ’til you get there to start experiencing all the authentic specialties Hawaii has to offer!