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The Aloha shirt — commonly known across mainland North America and beyond as the Hawaiian shirt — is a beloved island icon synonymous with the Aloha spirit. However, the bright and bold beach fashion staple has a storied history, including having a surprising influence on North American workplace culture. 

Feeling intrigued? Read on to learn all about the Hawaiian shirt's legend and lore.

A conflicting history

While there's much dispute over who deserves credit for producing the first Aloha shirt, most will agree that Japanese and Chinese tailors, who immigrated to the islands for plantation work, were instrumental in its creation.  

The first iterations — likely occurring in the 1920s and 1930s — were a fusion of western fashion, Polynesian prints and eastern fabrics. Think colourful kimonos, bold geometric patterns, and Chinese silks transformed into structured, loose-fitting shirts similar to those worn untucked in plantation fields, like the Filipino Barong Tagalog.

A conflicting history

The meaning of Aloha is love, compassion and peace. Its sentiment is considered a guideline for living and influencing others with an open heart and lifted spirit. As the Aloha shirt harmoniously represents Hawaii's multitude of cultures, the name is a perfect fit.

A cultural phenomenon emerges

In the early 1930s, visitors of Hawaii were primarily the wealthy, politicians and celebrities. When Hollywood elite and prominent figureheads began returning from their exclusive, luxury Hawaiian vacations wearing brightly coloured garb, the Aloha shirt propelled to an iconic status symbol and a new industry was born.

Celebrity influencers have continued to be a driving force behind the steadfast Hawaiian fashion trend — from Elvis Prestley and Jimmy Buffet to Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I., and with current day stars like Brad Pitt's character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Hawaiian shirts hang on a clothing rack.

A temporary change in focus and design

During World War II, Hawaii's garment industry pivoted to produce uniforms for the United States military, putting a slight pause on Aloha shirt manufacturing. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, fashion designers began swapping out cherry blossoms and other Japanese-influenced patterns for Hawaiian-inspired prints.

After the war, when servicemen returned home from South Pacific stations, they brought souvenirs and Aloha shirts for loved ones, and the vibrant Hawaiian fashion statement resurged in popularity.

An unexpected influence on workplace culture

Hawaiian employers required staff to wear standard business suits despite working in office buildings void of air conditioning. However, in 1966 the Hawaii Fashion Guild introduced the concept of “Aloha Friday,” which promoted swapping out formal business attire for Hawaiian-inspired fashion on the last day of each workweek. The couture concept soon infiltrated mainland business communities, creating a new tradition in workplace culture coined Casual Friday.

A cultural resurgence through Hawaiian fashion

Today, Hawaiian Indigenous fashion producers, including Manaola, Sig Zane Designs, Kealopiko and PoMahina Designs, are sharing and showcasing their living culture through Aloha attire. Drawing inspiration from ancestral stories, traditions and Hawaii's tropical flora and fauna, local designers create beautiful statement pieces representing the Aloha spirit.

Making the conscious choice to buy clothing from Indigenous artists offers a unique opportunity to support local culture while learning about Hawaii's rich heritage.

Hawaiian shirts hang in a closet.

Discover the beauty of Aloha at FlyOver Canada's new film: Hawaii From Above, premiering on June 18th.

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