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Fall is in the air, but for aficionados, Hawaiian shirts know no season.

October 17, 2003|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

Kaleidoscopic, gossamer, whimsical, they have granted us refuge from "progress" year after year, decade after decade, good times and bad, when almost everything else has succumbed. Obsolete? Not once in almost 75 years have you been able to say that about aloha shirts. In or out of fashion? What else can a man wear to stand so brazenly apart from the very idea of "fashion"?

It's autumn, gentlemen, time to contemplate the happiest things in our wardrobes. Must we put them away for the season?

Not a chance. Let's remember how the aloha shirt -- use it interchangeably with "Hawaiian shirt" if you desire -- came to be and what it is meant to signify.

"How do you put away an attitude? How do you put away a feeling?" asked Dale Hope, a shirt designer who grew up in Hawaii's apparel business and wrote its authoritative cultural history, "The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands."

Hope has an advantage, of course. He lives in Hawaii. On the 80-degree islands, year-round wear of Hawaiian shirts is de rigueur -- although workplace dress codes generally require men to, oh no, tuck them in. But Hope also designs aloha prints for the broader market at Patagonia, the adventure apparel company, and understands that Hawaiian shirts are no longer a niche business but "a worldwide phenomenon."

"Go anywhere on the planet today, people are wearing Hawaiian shirts," he observed.

You could say the same thing about the even more venerable bluejean, or the necktie for that matter. But jeans have never escaped their heritage as the livery of labor. And the necktie has accomplished little after all these years of trying except to distinguish its wearer from the fellow in bluejeans.

Aloha shirts, by contrast, have always spoken a different language.

Dressed in a lime-and-red-and-white shirt from the 1960s, Hope was interviewed at Duke's Canoe Club on Waikiki, a place where the only way to stand out would be to wear a white dress shirt. For Hawaiians and those who visit the islands, Hawaiian shirts have a specific geographic meaning. In the larger world, they also unavoidably speak -- and speak loudly -- of the "spirit" at the heart of Polynesian myths.

"Relax, be at ease, have some fun." That's Hope's philosophy, expressed variously by 100 shirts in his closet and his ongoing campaign to get aloha shirts on a series of U.S. postage stamps.

"Have you noticed that people who wear them are more relaxed?" asked George Michael, a Waikiki artist. Clad in a shirt with a blue hibiscus print, he added: "As bright and colorful as they are, they don't have an in-your-face attitude. You meet someone wearing a Hawaiian shirt and nine times out of 10, they're going to be a little more down to earth."

Escape from gray flannel

Aloha shirts were devised by Oahu tailors in the 1930s to please tourists who wanted to escape the itchy, constricting white-shirt-and-coat leisure wear of the era. The loose cut was liberating. Rayon caressed sunburned skin. Patterns and colors were like nothing that American men had known. Following the axiom that good things take on a life of their own, Hawaiian shirts spread, and by the '50s were an indelible part of California's culture too.

"Ever since its fall from grace, humanity has yearned to find its way back to the paradise it was cast out of," Sven Kirsten wrote in his lavish study of postwar Polynesian pop, "The Book of Tiki." In the post-World War II boom times, Americans, and particularly the trendsetters in suburban Southern California, were hot on its trail. Aloha shirts, Polynesian luaus and exotic cocktails opened freedom's door for the man in the gray flannel suit.

The tiki and much else from that era went the way of kitsch. But the aloha shirt gradually became mainstream -- without entirely losing its implied warning that the wearer is the kind of guy who just might have a streak of native somewhere in his heart. Along the way, beginning with two-color Tahitian "pareu" prints and "reverse" patterns sewn inside out so as to appear faded, aloha shirts gained an important boost by their association with surf culture.

In his book "The Aloha Shirt," Hope recounted an interview with Southern California surfer Joe Quigg, 50 years after Quigg's first trip to the Islands. Asked if the aloha shirt was a big deal in the surfer lifestyle, Quigg replied, "You have a pencil? Let me draw you the first print I ever wore."

More recently, the aloha shirt took a big step toward national respectability thanks to Tommy Bahama, the resort-wear manufacturer that spread across the country by, ironically, turning its back on the shirt's Hawaiian heritage. Instead, the company calls its muted shirts "island" clothing, suitable "on the beaches of Bermuda or in the jungles of New York City." Even die-hard Hawaiian traditionalists grant that Tommy Bahama has been not only a marketing marvel but also a pioneer in the use of ever more refined silk fabrics.

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