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Arguably no other pattern conjures up summer, vacations, and the good life like the Hawaiian print. Much maligned in recent decades, the tropical motif has blossomed of late on a variety of labels and in updated fits and silhouettes. From the resurgence of Hawaiian traditionalists Reyn Spooner to a Brady Bunch-inspired GANT collection by Michael Bastian, the Aloha print’s connotations as obnoxious tourist wear have been all but diminished in our collective sartorial memories. Its adoption for Spring/Summer 2012 by Supreme — the current barometer of street cool — seems, for the most part, to have cemented its status on urban pavements as well as on the runway.
Despite its iconic place in Americana and capturing of the “spirit of place” like no other pattern, the Hawaiian print’s evolution is most accurately traced back to the Asian diaspora, to turn-of-the-century immigrant culture. Its beginnings stem, by many accounts, from the Asian dry-goods shops that populated pre-WWII Honolulu, where merchants hawked finely-printed Kabe crepe fabric that were then sewn into colorful, patterned shirts. As such, the earliest specimens depicted ancient Oriental, especially Japanese, imagery — tigers, bamboo forests, Mount Fuji and koi. The tail-out, straight-hemmed silhouette of traditional Filipino garb, meanwhile — along with the tropical heat — played a crucial role in the Hawaiian shirt’s development as casual, carefree clothing.
It was not long before those distinctly Asian motifs took on a more localized flavor. The peaceful Far East landscapes and symbolic images that graced the earliest shirts soon gave way to a decidedly Hawaiian iconography — hula girls, beachscapes, flying fish, native hibiscus and night-blooming cereus, among the most notable specimens. One of the earliest known purveyors of the Hawaiian shirt, Ellery Chun of King-Smith Clothiers and his sister, Ethel Chun Lum, were the first to register the term “Aloha Shirt” in the 1930s. Various takes and iterations of the colorful prints soon followed and the modern Hawaiian shirt was born.
The end of World War II brought waves of homeward bound servicemen and women to the shores of Hawaii, where they bought and returned home with the suitably peaceful printed shirts. By the 1950s, with leaps made in air travel and Hawaii’s newfound status as a U.S. state, tourists were flocking to the islands in droves, where they fell in love with surf and beach culture and the garments that depicted the dreamy island lifestyle. As tailors and garment manufacturers continued to adapt the colorful, tropical motifs, the shirts were soon adopted by celebrities like Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby.
In the decades to follow, the Hawaiian print’s place in the archives of quintessentially American patterns was all but assured. Later adopters like Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I. shifted the shirts’ frame of reference from Hawaii-specific to any locale in which beach or surf culture was prominent. Then, somewhere along the way, expanding waistlines and a diminishing interest in sartorial matters led to the uniform of the American tourist — oversized Aloha shirts, flip-flops, fanny packs and cameras. It didn’t help matters that by the late ’90s, the shirts had also become synonymous with puka-shell necklaces and the frosted-tipped hairstyles of boy bands like N’Sync.
Today, the Hawaiian print has been rescued by a veritable bounty of labels and designers. As one of the rare patterns that simultaneously encompasses American heritage, relaxed Californian surf culture and recently, downtown streets, the options available for shoppers are plentiful. Labels like Levi’s Vintage Clothing and Japanese brand Custom King recently mined G.I.-inspired, WWII-era patterns, while more contemporary iterations can be found from Tantum, A Bathing Ape, and the aforementioned Supreme . Those seeking the best of both worlds need only look to Reyn Spooner — the authentic purveyor of Hawaiian-print garments since 1956 — for vintage-inspired, reverse-print shirts in contemporary cuts. For the faint-of-heart, more subtle, measured doses of the tropical motifs are easily appropriated into one’s wardrobe — floral bucket hats, for example, patterned canvas sneakers or a flash of Hawaiian flair from contrast-pocket tees.
In the wake of an economic recession in which drab, Depression-era Americana was appropriated by faux lumberjacks and railway conductors, menswear seems to have risen, along with the retail industry, to a brighter place. In this veritable Renaissance era of masculine style, in which more adventurous, even flamboyant patterns have earned their places in guys’ wardrobes, the imperative for men’s dressing seems to most closely resemble that of the Hawaiian print — relax, and enjoy it while it lasts.