Hawaiian shirts ride wave of popularity

Spring is here, and that means the season has arrived for tropical print camp shirts, better known as Hawaiian shirts.

After a harsh winter, a change of attire can spark a change of attitude.

“The minute you put them on, you feel a little more relaxed,” said Doug Wood, chief operating officer of Seattle-based Tommy Bahama, one of the nation’s top sellers of upscale versions of Hawaiian shirts.

Hawaiian shirts have been experiencing one of their periodic waves of popularity in recent years, thanks to the influence of surfer chic. Despite their humble 1930s origins and iconoclastic image, Hawaiian shirts are a serious business and subject of academic study. They are popular everywhere, said Linda Arthur, a textile professor at Washington State University who has written several books about Aloha shirts, the preferred name among aficionados.

“The Aloha shirt has covered the globe,” Arthur said.

Aloha shirts were invented in the 1930s, when mom-and-pop tailors in Hawaii began making Western-style garments out of a common material, colorful Japanese kimono fabric. The shirts at first were sold to tourists, but eventually caught on with locals.

Students at the Punahou School on Oahu, whose graduates include President Barack Obama, started ordering such shirts for school functions.

The shirt industry grew during World War II, when products from the mainland were in short supply in Hawaii and people had to create their own fabrics and make their own clothes, Arthur said.

This sparked the heyday of Hawaiian shirt genius Alfred Shaheen, who developed methods that allowed the shirts to explode with multiple colors and built his own fabric factory. Shaheen, who died in December at 86, is credited with transforming the shirts from souvenirs into works of art, and spurring mass production. Brightly colored rayon shirts made by Shaheen and others in the 1940s and 1950s, known as Silkies, have become collector’s items, selling for thousands of dollars.

Manufacturers at that time tried to make Hawaiian shirts cut especially for ladies, but found that many women preferred wearing the men’s cut. In that respect, the shirts were gender-bending, Arthur said.

The Aloha shirt played a role in one of the most popular workplace innovations, casual Fridays. The city of Honolulu decided in 1965 to allow employees to wear Aloha shirts to offices, laying the groundwork for a trend that later swept the nation.

“Now the average man in Hawaii wears an Aloha shirt every day,” Arthur said.

Not everyone is a fan. Glenn O’Brien, style columnist for GQ magazine, believes Hawaiian shirts lost much of their artistry when they went mass market.

“At best they are a ‘go to hell’ item, like wild colored country club pants, that assert a man’s token rebellion against conformity,” O’Brien wrote in an e-mail. They are not appropriate outside of beach parties, and for no office unless it “sells ukuleles or mai tais,” he said.

shirt do’s and don’ts

Do buy at least one size too large.

Do believe that louder is better.

Do compliment another guy on his rockin’ shirt.

Do wear them with a solid blazer for formal occasions.

Don’t ever tuck them in, unless you are Thomas Magnum.

Don’t wear them with a necktie.

Don’t wear a shirt with matching pants or shorts.

Don’t wear a matching shirt with your spouse.

The Associated Press