The Aloha Shirt

Credit: Steve Ritter/C&EN

Common attire for men in Hawai'i is the "Hawaiian shirt," made from a floral print fabric typically bearing a Polynesian motif. I learned here at Pacifichem in Honolulu that the shirt is really called an "Aloha shirt." The word aloha means hello, goodbye, and just about any other warm fuzzy feeling you want. Women wear Aloha shirts too, as well as dresses of the same material. My source of this new knowledge was Glen, a greeter at the Hawai'i Convention Center who helps conferees find the meeting room they are looking for. You can see Glen sporting a nice Aloha shirt in this photo, and giving the "hang loose" sign, which exemplifies the happy-go-lucky attitude here in the islands. Glen says he doesn't know the history of the Aloha shirt. A quick Google search finds that the modern version originated in the 1930s when a Chinese merchant in Waikiki began sewing brightly colored shirts for tourists out of old kimono fabrics he had leftover in stock. American GIs made them popular during and after World War II.

Credit: Steve Ritter/C&EN

At any rate, Glen says it's common to wear an Aloha shirt with dress pants to work, out to dinner, and for just about anything. High-end tailored silk Aloha shirts can cost more than $100, he says. Low-cost versions made of rayon or other synthetic material can cost as little as $10. Basic cotton versions cost about $30. Plenty of people buy them at the ubiquitous ABC Stores, a Hawaiian convenience store chain. The stores sell food and drinks, chocolates, macadamia nuts, shirts, beachwear, and souvenirs. They are tucked in everywhere in Waikiki on street corners and in the middle of each block--I would say about 50 per square mile. Starbucks and Subway could learn something from them. At the convention center, a musician daily serenaded meeting attendees in the entrance atrium, and he wore an assortment of different Aloha shirts. In the photo shown, he has on an interesting white one. Also shown is the American Chemical Society’s Richard Love, sporting an Aloha shirt and demonstrating multitasking skills in carrying out his duties as ACS’s Pacifichem technical program chair.

Steve Ritter/C&EN

No, I didn't buy an Aloha shirt. It doesn't seem quite right to wear one this time of year on the mainland, which is getting dumped on with snow essentially coast to coast. Maybe if I lived in Hawai'i ...

Credit: Steve Ritter/C&EN

Author: Steve Ritter

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  1. “No, I didn’t buy an Aloha shirt. It doesn’t seem quite right to wear one this time of year on the mainland, which is getting dumped on with snow essentially coast to coast”

    Steve you need to move to the California coast, its close to Hawaii and you can wear aloha shirts year round, well most of the time. But I have to say that I really likes the red and yellow aloha shirt pictured above, its big and bold and typical of a shirt that should be worn in Hawaii.


  2. Thanks for the encouragement. If someone asks me what I want for my birthday … a shirt, not to move to California, that is.

  3. A quick question: Can one refer to the Aloha or Hawaiian shirt just with the word “aloha”? As in, for example, “I’ll wear my aloha to the party tonight.” or “I bought a couple of alohas on my last visit to Hawaii.”
    I’m supposed to use “aloha” that way in a text I’m recording for a Japanese English book and it just doesn’t sound right.
    Thanks, Tom Clark

  4. Hi Tom:
    That is a good question. Maybe it depends on context, using “Aloha” by itself could work if everyone knows what you mean by it. Any Hawaiians out there have an answer?