HOW THE HAWAIIAN SHIRT BECAME A CULTURAL PHENOMENON

It has become a flag for expression, but at both ends of the political spectrum.


By anna alford: arts Columnist


The cyclic nature of fashion is well-recognised, and one garment currently finding itself in a distinctly odd upswing of the cycle is the once-innocuous Hawaiian shirt.

The Hawaiian shirt, also referred to as the Aloha shirt, is a style of dress shirt emerging from Hawaii. Their origin can be traced back as early as the 1920s and 30s, when Honolulu-based stores started creating shirts out of vibrant Japanese prints.

Following World War II, servicemen and women returned home to the U.S. from Asia and The Pacific islands with aloha shirts created in Hawaii since the 30s. In the years following, mass-production began by notable manufacturers such as Alfred Shaheen, a textile tycoon credited for popularising the style of shirt. Elvis Presley famously sports a Shaheen-designed red aloha number in the album cover for his 1961 album Blue Hawaii.

The style of shirt soon became desired by both locals and tourists, with ‘Aloha Friday’ now a common custom for celebrating the end of the working week across Hawaii.

Cultural references

Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet has become one of the most famed Shakespearean adaptations, and not only because it features a young Leonardo DiCaprio. It has achieved cult status since its release, majorly due to the costuming, giving the film one of the most memorable aesthetics in movie history.

Romeo and the rest of the Montague gang don their famous unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts and utilitarian looks to represent their laid-back and carefree behaviour. DiCaprio’s iconic shirt featuring a red heart pierced with a sword is now held by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, alongside ensembles from Moulin Rouge and vintage Alexander McQueen.

Modern men started dressing like the 90s Romeo, with the likes of Harry Styles and Justin Bieber matching the aloha ensembles with hair so floppy Hugh Grant could have you done for plagiarism. Soon after, every twenty-something male in trendy London neighbourhoods began dressing like an extra from the Luhrmann movie.

Association with alt-right movements

Alongside the Fred Perry shirt and the OK hand gesture, another once symbol of peace and harmony is in peril of being ruined and re-established as an emblem of white supremacy. The appeal of the Hawaiian shirt to alt-right groups does not originate from a fondness for floral prints or breathable fabrics, instead these patterns are a signal that they are ready for a second Civil War.


MACKAYAN: the hawaiin shirt. a cultural phenomenon

The style of shirt soon became desired by both locals and tourists, with ‘Aloha Friday’ now a common custom


As such, the past year has been a testing time for the Hawaiian shirt industry. Wrapped up in the media hysteria surrounding the shirt’s resurgence, manufacturers are unexpectedly having to explain that they have no involvement in a movement that thirsts for violence.

Shirt-clad extremists are rocking up, guns in hand, to protests against police brutality, that exploded across the US following the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer in May of last year. Others encourage hatred from their computer keyboards, urging followers to perform acts of violence against black protestors, with the intention of sparking a ‘race war’.

Groups ascribing to this ideology go by the name of the ‘Boogaloo Boys’, so called from the 1984 cult film sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. Originally a reference to the dance style of the same name, the connotation of ‘Electric Boogaloo’ has established its place in pop culture lexicon, commonly denoting an absurd sequel title or follow up to an obscure film. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, bands, TV shows, news articles and other media outlets have used the Boogaloo subtitle, making it into an internet meme. It’s association with far-right allies stems from the idea that the conflict they support would become a ‘sequel’ to the American Civil War; that is, ‘Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo’.

Hawaii residents hope that the shirt’s original meaning is one that will endure the Boogaloo movement. The clothing item has a remarkable history of integrating cultures in an utterly beautiful, yet remote, place where community spirit is paramount. The extent to which it is being exploited for something other than that is unthinkable to inhabitants of the islands. As for whether you can still wear a Hawaiian shirt to your next summer barbeque, we suggest wearing it proudly, to reclaim the shirt’s authentic intention: to spread love, compassion and good vibes. Just don’t accessorize it with guns, body armour or racism.