Where I went to high school, fighting was frowned upon and avoided by most but, somehow, I managed to find my way into a number of altercations. High school fights back then did not inflict much damage more than a bruised ego or a ripped shirt. The ego always seemed to rebound remarkably; it was the shirt that needed more attention. The only reason I mention this low behavior is, as a side result, it served to open up another vast dimension I never knew existed. Lucky for me, Punahou Academy possessed a thrift shop in the basement of one of its old halls full of immediate remedies for a shirtless student. The shop was stuffed with old clothes, and there was a long rack of what we called aloha shirts. The prints were Hawaiian themes on silk, rayon, and cotton and cost anywhere from a nickel to twenty-five cents. I had little idea that rack was a treasure chest, most of those shirts gold and, most importantly, a first step on a well-worn path into a more complete life.
This path I speak of is more a journey that happens so frequently and inevitably in Hawai‘i. Generally it beckons to the malahini [visitor] who arrives, falls instantly under the spell of the islands, and when it’s time to leave, often decides to stay and, without realizing it, is undergoing a process. The malahini wants to become kama‘āina [local]. This transformation is what Hawai‘i is all about—interestingly, it happens even if one is already kama‘āina … like for me.
The eyes open first and see Hawai‘i like never before. Next, the mind opens and almost always, if it truly opens, is inundated with a flood of thoughts that are, at once, comforting, confusing, and complex. Depending on whom the person is, this opening of the eyes and mind may take some time—a long time in some cases—or may be instantaneous. The third part is the clincher. Usually, there is some fanfare when it occurs, fireworks or simply a moment that takes the breath away. The opening of the heart, for whatever reason is a big step, a turning point, for once open it will never close all the way again. Aloha opens the heart and Hawai‘i is aloha. Dale’s meticulously researched book will reveal not only a rich history, but will also serve to stimulate the reader’s own ongoing immersion into the spirit of aloha.
Hawaiian print or aloha shirts have been a long tradition in Hawai‘i. They were a result of several different influences. The cut and style took after the sturdy garment worn by sugar cane and pineapple plantation workers: a traditional short-sleeve, button-front work shirt of blue-and- white-checkered denim called palaka. The colorful prints came from the earliest shirts being designed for visitors to the islands to take home more than just some memories of their trip to Hawai‘i. Aloha shirts first appeared around 1935. By the late 1940s and through the 1950s, as tourism in Hawai‘i grew, so did the popularity of the aloha shirt. Manufacturing of the aloha shirt in Hawai‘i became a booming business but it was dependent on fabrics imported from the mainland. What began as a business to produce shirts for the growing tourist trade somewhere along the line morphed into something more kama‘āina, something totally local, a rendering of the aloha spirit into a garment one could put on and after taking it off, would still leave some residue of that spirit on the wearer.
With its earliest influences from the traditional Hawaiian tapa garments pounded from the bark of the mulberry tree, through the first Western clothing traded for from the early sailors, the work shirt of the plantations, the aloha shirt grew into a complete manifestation of all things aloha. Dale will walk the reader down the road from Ellery Chun’s original vision, Musa-Shiya’s clever marketing, the hundreds of small tailors sewing custom clothing, to the bigger operations like Kahala, Kamehameha, and Royal Hawaiian Manufacturing. The huge effect World War II had on the growing industry and how business would rebound when the war ended. Dress codes for business people in Hawai‘i would begin to relax, Aloha Week would help bring the aloha shirt into the work places and legislation would start to move in the aloha direction. The 1950s were the Golden Age of aloha shirts and in 1959, Hawai‘i would become the 50th state of the Union.
The aloha shirt continued to retain its prominence as a local fashion statement. In 1948, Alfred Shaheen expanded his family’s garment business to include ready-to-wear aloha shirts and women’s fashions. Understanding the drawbacks of using imported textiles, he went out on a limb by seeing up a print plant to create his own fabrics. By 1952, Shaheen had his own factory and machinery to print, dye, and finish his material; a unique technique for silk-screening the island-inspired fabrics; a design, sewing, and production staff; a chain of retail stores; and the largest aloha wear manufacturing in Hawai‘i. Shaheen’s philosophy for his prints was to celebrate the history and culture of Hawai‘i, the South Seas, and Asia. Perhaps because of this feeling in his artwork, it seemed to resonate with the local people. When the tourists saw the locals wearing the designs, they had to have them too. Shaheen also inspired other Hawai‘i garment manufacturers to keep themselves and their products local.
During my high school years, I had no idea about the symbolism behind the real aloha shirt. Except for the ones I got from the thrift shop, I didn’t own any. There was, unbeknownst to me, a revival going on. The aloha shirt was returning to its roots, putting the spirit back into the creation and manufacture as well as the wearing of the designs. Like all hindsight, had I any inkling that eventually those shirts, once tourist souvenirs and secondhand thrift items, would become collectables, I would be rich.
Visiting surfers on low budgets, without even realizing it, also helped to bring aloha shirts back into fashion through the 1960s. They went to the Goodwill or Salvation Army to fill out their meager wardrobes and found the same thing I did: a big supply of cheap clothes that made them look and feel good when they went out to party or holoholo. The family of my high school surfing chum Tim McCullough ran an upscale clothing store in the Ala Moana Shopping Center named after his dad. Reyn’s Menswear was high fashion among the young business people of Hawai‘i. Reyn partnered up with Ruth Spooner to create Reyn Spooner and soon began turning out dressed up aloha shirts with button-down collars. They turned the fabric inside out, muting the bright colors to create the reverse print aloha shirt that soon became the rage. In 1966, the Hawai‘i Fashion Guild convinced the local businesses to dress more casually on the last day of the workweek, instituting what became known as Aloha Friday. In Hawai‘i, it made more sense to dress for the weather and little sense to wear a suit and tie. Today aloha attire is acceptable in most places of business and every day is Aloha Friday.
In 1972, I went to work for ‘Big’ Dave Rochlen at Surfline Hawai‘i, which specialized in aloha wear. I learned about the rag business and worked the trade shows, the CalMart showroom, and as a sales rep selling in Southern California. I worked with the designers, the cutters, sewing shops, even the button makers.
It was a wonderful education; Dave Rochlen was an inspirational and wise teacher. One of the early surfers from Santa Monica, he moved over to Hawai‘i around 1950, married a Hawaiian girl, the lovely Kenui, and embraced all things Hawaiian. He taught me about allowing myself the freedom to fail at something in order to learn how to do it properly and gain some wisdom in the process. It was a lesson that would carry me through life.
But his greatest lesson was about aloha, something often taken for granted. Aloha is a Hawaiian greeting that encompasses the meaning of love, mercy, and compassion. Having the aloha spirit meant living and giving these virtues. The aloha shirt is a symbol of the aloha spirit and when a person wears the shirt, he also wears the aloha spirit. And when other people see him wearing the shirt, they get a feeling of the spirit. Making the shirts, getting them on people, and living with aloha was an uplifting endeavor to which Dave dedicated his life.
When I began to work with Patagonia in 2005, I found their magnificent line of aloha shirts to be wholly intriguing. I came to find out that their long relationship with Rell Sunn, the ‘Queen of Mākaha,’ had kindled a synergy of Hawaiian and their own California aloha spirit. I found Dale Hope, another old surfing friend, to be the source of the beautiful aloha shirt designs. It made sense why their shirts had made such a deep impression on me. Dale is a second-generation aloha shirt maker who grew up not only in the same business his father was in but, like me and Rell, during a period when the aloha shirt came to be recognized as a spiritual badge.
The meaning of what he was designing went deep with Dale; his life of aloha is reflected in every shirt. The old Hawaiians believed that mana was a cosmic energy that flowed through everything in the universe like the wind, waves, rocks, plants, and animals. Mana in humans manifested as great skills, talents, strengths, intelligence, and character. Dale Hope has managed to convey some great mana into every aloha shirt he works on and, in fact, into everything he does, this book especially. And the wonderfully kind person who ran the Punahou Thrift Shop where I began my aloha shirt journey was none other than Dale’s mother. It is, indeed, a small and completely connected world.
When I put on my aloha shirt, not only do I feel better but I’m certain that those who notice what I’m wearing feel a little something too. Such is the power of the aloha spirit. Thanks Dale.