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Cultural Impact of Hawaiian Shirts


aloha shirtThe Hawaiian shirt is a symbol of the Aloha spirit, which is a friendly sentiment shown to all visitors and residents. By sharing the spirit of Aloha, residents' share who they are in ways which are unconditional and creating a connection with that person. Wearing the Hawaiian shirt supports the Hawaiian values of friendliness, openness, and concern. It creates smiles no matter where the location.


It rose in popularity after the Second World War when servicemen and women returned to the states with their souvenirs. When surfers first wore the shirts, tourists were greeted with vibrant island imagery combined with a vivid picture of Hawaii. Soon after, the modes of travel increased and airplane flights across the ocean were available to every American. Hollywood celebrities returned wearing the Hawaiian shirt. The then-President Harry S. Truman was seen regularly wearing the Hawaiian shirt. Stars throughout the decades have been seen often wearing the Hawaiian shirt including Elvis Presley, Richard Lewis, Johnny Weissmuller, Bing Crosby, and Arthur Godfrey.  John Wayne and Duke Kaganamoku endorsed the labels. Duke was the most popular Hawaiian surfer and Olympic swimming champion who created his own production line of the Hawaiian shirt, one of the first to endorse it.


Entertainers such as Randy Newman, Jay-Z, Gabriel Iglesias, Steve Bunce, "Weird Al" Yankovic, and Tobias Sammet have worn the Hawaiian shirt while performing. The cultural impact of the Hawaiian shirt reached beyond Hollywood stars and affected politicians as well. Lito Atienza was the former Manila mayor who wears the Hawaiian shirt as though it were a uniform. The stateside store, Trader Joe's, required the Hawaiian shirt as their dress code while French singers like Antoine and Carlos are recognized for making the Hawaiian shirt a major role in their public image.


Like the Hawaiian Lei, these shirts represent statements of a connection to the island as well as their love for everything the cultural encompasses. The shirt functions as a cultural ambassador, evoking the spirit of Aloha to tourists and residents alike. The original Hawaiian shirt displayed ancient symbols brought from the Orient. The symbol of pine and plum trees represented success, good fortune, and a long life. Tigers were indicative of courage and strength. Bamboo was a symbolic image of strength as well as flexibility. Mount Fuji, landscapes, and ornate temples were signs of grace and peace, traditional images of the Orient. The romance which these designs included was dreamy, but did not capture the qualities of the island. Local artists began integrating pieces and symbols from their culture into this growing cultural phenomenon. The early Hawaiian prints which were hung in homes became new designs for the Hawaiian shirt, increasing its cultural impact.


It was Elsie Das who was responsible for incorporating breadfruit, hibiscus, and night-blooming cereus into the Hawaiian shirt. Ethel Chun designed the Hawaiian girls, pineapples, and palm tree designs. Her designs were inspired by the first cruise she took to the United States wherein she took notes for product designs from things such as flying fish. These local artists were commissioned for their work by the manufacturers Branfleet and Kamehameha. The design portfolio of the Hawaiian shirt increased to include fish, birds, surfers, hula girls, tropical flowers, coconut trees, outrigger canoes, and palm trees.

The art form which was the Hawaiian shirt was shared between designers, artists, retailers, and manufacturers who united their memories of flowers, beaches, rainforests, and sunsets popular to Hawaii. John "King Keoni" Meigs was one of many flamboyant fashion designers who profited from the Golden Age of these Hawaiian shirts, the time period between the 1930s and the 1950s where the heart and soul of Hawaii was put into the Hawaiian shirt designs. It was thanks to these designs that the Hawaiian shirt began to have a cultural impact on the rest of the world. Their production placed Hawaii on the map. Displaying a carefree and graceful lifestyle, the Hawaiian shirt remains a symbol of the heart of the island.




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"Hello John, I like them fine. I've only worn the new ones around town, and to my sisters' for Easter. I did wear the first one I bought to Kemah last summer when the I took my wife, daughter and niece to the boardwalk there. Thanks for asking."
- Mark

"Got the shirts, they are beautiful! Thanks very much. Sincerely,
Claudio Ballard, Chairman
Iconic Motors LLC
- Claudio Ballard

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