This colorful story and history lesson is from my recent book, "Selected Writings." The article was written in Spring of 2017, which helps explain the "weather talk" at the start of this. Happy to say, I still have two of these special shirts.
Spring arrived early this year in St. Louis. You probably remember that first day of Spring when the temperature hit 86°, following a winter of virtually no snow. I have three unopened bags of ice melter in my garage to prove it.
My subject today, however, is not weather, climate change or the end of humanity. It’s Fashion. To be more specific, Hawaiian shirts, aka Aloha shirts. This is the time of year when we put the woolens and insulated garments away and bring out the lightweight cottons, rayons and silks, right? And nothing says Spring faster than a colorful Hawaiian shirt.
I’m happy to say that these distinctive garments are still in style, as long as you’re open-minded about style. I used to wear Hawaiian shirts frequently in college and my carefree single years. Then I got married and was gradually weaned away from them.
It’s difficult to explain the style’s longevity. Some sources trace its origins to the early 1900’s, but there’s general agreement that the shirt began hitting full stride in 1935 out of a shop in Honolulu run by a Japanese gentleman named Miyamoto (that’s his name up there in the title). While looking for information to add credence to these musings, I discovered a most impressive website. It’s The Museum of Hawaiian Shirts (themohs.org). Really. Their mission statement: “To celebrate the history, art, and design of Aloha shirts.” These obviously are much more than shirts. They are works of art, collectors’ items, clothing of rare vintage and cultural significance. By the way, this isn’t only a “guy” thing. Women wear these shirts as well, the only difference being a lower cut, y-neck style.
My first exposure to Hawaiian shirts was negative. My dad had a friend named Sid. He smoked cigars, talked like a bookie (which he was), and wore Hawaiian shirts. My mom hated him. As a result, I hated him, even before I had ever met him. When I finally did, he was smoking a cigar, talking like Tony Soprano and wearing a bright blue shirt emblazoned with big-busted women and palm trees. I’ve never been able to shake that image of him. It took years for me to overcome that early influence and develop a fondness for this colorful garb - sans cigar and wise guy talk.
When I Googled “Hawaiian Shirts,” a world of color and design opened up to me, a virtual “Open Sesame” of style. Also a world of prices. You can order a shirt for as little as $5 (plus shipping) or as much as $179. Here are a couple that will set you back a few bucks: a Saint Laurent for $850 (but it’s free shipping!) and a Hale vintage from the 50’s for $2400 (plus $8.95 shipping).And if you’ve got really big bucks, consider a rare “Map of Hawaii” Reyn Spooner shirt for only $2500. What is a Reyn Spooner, you ask? It’s a fashion design company that was founded in 1956. I have no idea what makes this one shirt so special.
If you need a shirt right away, several stores here carry them. The Mother Lode of Aloha Shirts, however, hangs in the re-sale shops. Used clothing, if you will. I visited Salvation Army, Goodwill, and the ScholarShop, though there are others, such as Plato’s Closet and Avalon Exchange. Also garage and yard sales. You get not only low, low prices, but a built-in “spirit” of the previous owner, a sense of transferred joie de vivre that will certainly enhance your outlook on the world. I get the feeling that these shirts were donated by grieving widows who cleaned out late hubby’s closet ASAP. But that’s just my imagination working overtime.
I had a blues band (The Taylor Young Blues Band) a few years ago. While visiting New York City, I wandered around Times Square and passed one of those stores that sells everything from shot glasses and hats to cameras and - yes, Hawaiian shirts. So I bought 6 very sharp and beautifully designed shirts for the guys in the band. Truth be told,we looked better than we sounded. But hey, it was the blues. “Sweet Home, Chicago,” with the Aloha visual.
Here’s a closing fashion tip: Add some color to your life. Guy or Gal. Go Hawaiian this Spring and Summer. Put on that shirt, maybe a straw hat, grab a pina colada and shout “Aloha.” You’ll be amazed at how good it makes you feel.