Hawaiian prints have only slightly more than an 80-year history, as when the first Hawaiian shirts, called then and now "aloha shirts", were made, there were no such prints. The original shirts, all made in small tailor shops in downtown Honolulu or Waikiki, were made from Japanese Kimono prints, generally, those designed for young girls, as the size of the designs rendered them appropriate to the cut of a man's shirt. A tailor by the name of Ellery Chun cut out and sewed the first of these in his King-Smith Tailor shop, coined the term "aloha shirt" and trademarked it sometime in the late 1920's or early 30's.
The pattern for the garments existed as the pattern of a man's field uniform used by sugar cane and pineapple workers and the fabric utilized for the construction of same was a plaid pattern that Hawaiians called "Palaka". Indeed, this pattern surfaces from time to time as a component of Island-inspired tropical sportswear lines. But it was the floral patterns that inspired the sale of the garment as a tourist-oriented item and the garments began making their way back to the mainland USA, sparking interest therein. It was not long before an industry sprang up in Hawaii manufacturing and wholesaling the garments. The first of the wholesalers was Herbert Briner's Kamehameha Garment Company, followed closely by Nat Norfleet Sr. and George Brangier whose Branfleet Company produced The Kahala branded shirts, both company's having a founding date of 1936 and both, though under different ownership, still in existence today.
This propelled demand for high-quality textiles with prints inspired by the Island lifestyle. As there were no textile printers in Hawaii at the time, the manufacturers looked to the Japanese printers for their source of supply, using Island artists to design the prints, which were initially printed upon silk and done in Japan. World War II would change all of that as the import of the fabric was abruptly halted after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The American company DuPont would step into the lurch when they developed a suitable rayon fabric that was colorfast through repeated washings, had the look and feel of silk and the added benefit of "breathability" owing to the larger fiber diameter of rayon. This would become the fabric of choice during and after the war, while, during the war years, the printing began to be done in Hawaii, with large screens used to hand-print the goods on long tables.
A gentleman by the name of Alfred Shaheen would develop a printing machine that he cobbled together from spare parts scavenged from junk shops and yards around the Island and his Shaheen branded shirts and women's wear would capture the attention of Hawaiian fashion aficionados, both in Hawaii and on the mainland, where he would eventually operate as many as 40 stores. He would eventually replace this machine while building an $8,000,000 facility to print and sew his garments that would come to employ over 400 workers. His unique method of hand-block printing and machine screening assured him a place in the industry that would eventually make his the largest apparel complex in Hawaii. His business flourished until his retirement in 1988, when he would close the doors on his company and a piece of Hawaiian history.
The business of making aloha shirts would continue, however, with makers both old and new taking inspiration from Shaheen's success and breaking new ground with their continually evolving Hawaiian textile designs. The popularity of these garments waxes and wanes with the years, but never disappears, though it has been ninety years since Ellery Chun sold his first one.