Hawaiian shirts, big business even in academia
NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS
Associated Press Writer
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Spring is here, and that means the season has arrived for tropical print camp shirts, better known as Hawaiian shirts.
After a harsh winter, a change of attire can spark a change of attitude.
“The minute you put them on, you feel a little more relaxed,” said Doug Wood, chief operating officer of Seattle-based Tommy Bahama, one of the nation’s top sellers of upscale versions of Hawaiian shirts.
Hawaiian shirts have been riding one of their periodic waves of popularity in recent years, thanks to the influence of surfer chic. Despite their humble 1930s origins and iconoclastic image, Hawaiian shirts are a serious business and subject of academic study. And they are popular everywhere, said Linda Arthur, a textile professor at Washington State University in Pullman who has written several books about Aloha shirts, the preferred name among aficionados.
“The Aloha shirt has covered the globe,” Arthur said.
Aloha shirts were invented in the 1930s, when mom-and-pop tailors in Hawaii began making Western-style garments out of a common material, colorful Japanese kimono fabric. The shirts at first were sold to tourists, but eventually caught on with locals.
Students at the prestigious Punahou School on Oahu, whose graduates include President Obama, started ordering such shirts to wear at school functions.
The shirt industry grew during World War II, when products from the mainland were in short supply in Hawaii and people had to create their own fabrics and make their own clothes, Arthur said.
This sparked the heyday of Hawaiian shirt genius Alfred Shaheen, who developed methods that allowed the shirts to explode with multiple colors and built his own fabric factory.
Shaheen, who died last December at 86, is crediting with transforming the shirts from tacky souvenirs into works of art, and spurring mass production. Brightly colored rayon shirts made by Shaheen and others in the 1940s and 1950s, known as Silkies, have become collector’s items, selling for thousands of dollars today.
Manufacturers at that time tried to make Hawaiian shirts cut especially for ladies, but found that many women preferred wearing the men’s cut. In that respect, the shirts were gender-bending, Arthur said.
The Aloha shirt also played a role in one of the most popular workplace innovations, casual Fridays. The city of Honolulu decided in 1965 that it was OK for employees to wear Aloha shirts to city offices, laying the groundwork for a trend that later swept the nation.
“Now the average man in Hawaii wears an Aloha shirt every day,” Arthur said.
Not everyone is a fan. Glenn O’Brien, style columnist for GQ magazine, believes Hawaiian shirts lost much of their artistry when they went mass market.
“At best they are a ‘go to hell’ item, like wild colored country club pants, that assert a man’s token rebellion against conformity,” O’Brien wrote in an e-mail. They are not appropriate outside of pool or beach parties, and for no office unless it “sells ukuleles or mai tais,” he said.
“I think they often represent a sort of desperation for leisure,” O’Brien said. “I think of the doctors from ‘MASH’ wearing them as they drink their martinis before the next load of wounded comes in.”
The shirts are loved or reviled from Moscow, Russia, to Moscow, Idaho. A recent heated debate on Russia.com involved why men wear “awful Hawaiian shirts.”
“They are incredibly ugly and make men look effeminate,” complained a poster named Irinka.
That prompted a person named Apache to post the famous Nick Nolte arrest photo, with the disheveled actor displaying wild hair and an impressive Hawaiian shirt. “You call THAT effeminate?” Apache asked.
Hawaiian shirts loom large in popular culture. The movie “From Here to Eternity,” set in Hawaii, featured stars like Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Borgnine wearing the shirts. Elvis Presley wore a Shaheen-designed red one for the cover of his 1961 album “Blue Hawaii.”
President Harry S. Truman was a noted Hawaiian shirtman. Al Pacino rocked one in “Scarface.” The character of Cosmo Kramer from “Seinfeld” wore them.
Homer Simpson perhaps distilled the essence of the shirts when he told Marge: “There’s only two kinds of guys who wear Hawaiian shirts: gay guys and big, fat party animals.”
California surfers of the 1960s embraced the shirts at a time that saw more abstract designs and unusual styles, including a cropped Hawaiian shirt called a jack-shirt that fit like an Eisenhower jacket. The 1970s brought a focus on ethnic designs and patterns, and the ’80s brought Tom Selleck in “Magnum, P.I.”
Selleck wore them so well that entrepreneur Greg Chambers was moved to start a mail order company called Mad Gringo.
“Thomas Magnum is the male species at its most potent,” Chambers said, even though Magnum took the radical step of tucking his shirts in — a move not recommended today.
Wearing Hawaiian shirts pays immediate dividends, said Chambers, who operates his company from Omaha, Neb., “the middle of the big island.”
“People are nicer to you. They speak slowly and tend to enunciate, and everyone says ‘Nice shirt!'” Chambers said. “It’s the only article of clothing that men can compliment one another on and still sound macho.”
Chambers said he keeps 10 to 12 Hawaiian shirts in rotation at all times, and believes every man should own at least two.
“If you own just one, people tend to say ‘there’s Jim in the party shirt … again,'” Chambers said. “And if you stretch beyond three, people start in on the ‘it’s so sad to see someone give up like that. His poor wife!'”
The nation’s rising affluence in the 1990s sparked a demand for high-end Hawaiian shirts, often now called “Resort Wear.” Many of those ’60s surfers eventually ended up in the Silicon Valley, where their relaxed clothing style became the de facto work uniform of the dot-com revolution, Arthur said.
That prompted a group of business people in Seattle to launch Tommy Bahama, a clothing company built on the image of a fictional Hawaiian shirtman living in a cabana house with no worries, but selling shirts for $100 or more.
Whether wearing a Hawaiian shirt to work is acceptable depends on where one lives. On the West Coast, it’s nothing special. In the buttoned down East Coast, it marks one as dressing outside the box, Wood said.
Tommy Bahama got a boost when actor Bruce Campbell, of the hit TV show “Burn Notice,” wore his personal collection of their shirts exclusively in his role as Sam.
“I am a Tommy Bahama guy,” Campbell told reporters recently. “Tommy Bahama, write that down, because we want a bunch of free shirts.”
Campbell got his wish. The company struck a deal to provide the show with clothes.
Campbell aside, Hawaiian shirts may be heading into a period of decline, after a long period of rising sales, Wood said.
“It seems to be a polo time,” he said.
One reason is that, try as they might, most men can only own so many Hawaiian shirts, he said. On the other hand, when a Hawaiian shirt design melds into a perfect blend of colors and patterns, all bets are off.
“I don’t care if the market is hot or not,” Wood said. “I can’t make enough of them. They blow out of stores.”
On the Web:
Hawaiian shirt mail order: http://www.madgringo.com
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.