The History of Aloha Wear

Early Hawaiians wore little--if any--clothing, owing to the tropical climate and their relative lack of modesty. What they did wear was, for women: a skirt-like wrap called a pa'u, frequently leaving the breasts uncovered. The storied grass skirt was chiefly utilized during ceremonial performances of native dances, mainly the hula. Men wore loin clothes known as malo and little else. Both the malo and the pa'u were made exclusively of kapa cloth, which was made by pounding the bark of certain trees, including the mulberry.

It was not until the missionaries showed up in 1820 that the native dress styles began to change. The prudish westerners admonished the local ladies to cover their breasts, and indeed, most everything else. They introduced to native women the 'Mother Hubbard,' a garment that, unlike their traditional covering, left absolutely everything to the imagination.

The Hawaiian adaptation of this bulky garment became known as a holoku and it was worn underneath a nightgown-like garment known as a muu-muu. It did not take the locals long to get tired of the cumbersome nature of this get-up and discard the outer holoku in all but the most formal of occasions, in favor of just the muu-muu, which began the signature garment for women of Hawaii and would, eventually, find its way to America where it was embraced by women for its ability to cover that which gals would just as soon have covered. Back on the Islands, the holoku remained the garment of choice for formal occasions and has a list of storied makers that produced and sold them throughout the years.

On the masculine side of the apparel equation, missionary influence precipitated a shift from the skimpy loin cloths to more conservative trousers and shirt wear. As there were no makers of such garments, save for a few tailor shops, they tended to be simple and plain renditions of same, often made at home. The rise of plantation labor and the immigrants imported to do it fueled a need for an appropriate 'uniform' for field duty. First the denim-type work shirt, similar to those employed today, was the go-to garment for work, but it quickly gave way to the palaka (Hawaiian for "plaid") shirts that adorned the backs of thousands of sugar plantation toilers and, later, their pineapple-working brethren. This garment featured a box-type cut with a pocket and short sleeves. It would be made in dozens of small tailor shops that struggled to fill the demand for them.

Eventually that demand was such that manufacturing entities sprang up to produce them in quantity. Not surprisingly, the corresponding drop in traffic suffered by the smaller tailor shops caused them to look elsewhere to make up for lost sales. First, the Musashiya store brought to the market this same box-cut shirt made from kimono prints imported from Japan. Their reception was such that others picked up on the idea, including one Ellery Chun, proprietor of King-Smith tailors. Mr. Chun made up one shirt out of a floral print that suggested, with its abundant vegetation, the Islands themselves. An idea struck him and he began marketing them as "Aloha Shirts" and very quickly had a run on the product at their then-robust sell price of $1 a piece. Tourists would make their way to the out-of-Waikiki location of Chun's store and began wearing them back to the Mainland as souvenirs of their trip.

Sensing a trend, May Company department stores suggested to one of their suppliers, Mr. Herb Briner, that he take a trip to Hawaii and see what was up with the garments. Briner quickly realized an opportunity in the shirts, and the sale thereof, in the mainland United States. So, in 1936, he bought one of the existing uniform makers and turned it into the Island's first ready-to-wear wholesale manufacturer, christening it "The Kamehameha Garment Company" and began producing the shirts. He was quickly followed into the business by Nat Norfleet and George Brangier who started Branfleet that later became The Kahala, also making the garments.

By 1939, there would be some two dozen firms making aloha shirts as well as ladies muu-muu. This was the beginning of what is now a large Hawaiian industry. And today, some 80 years later, both Kamehameha and Kahala, through many twists and turns, still survive and continue to produce high-quality aloha shirts. 


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