From Bare to Aloha Wear — A History


Captain Cook didn't mind it. Neither did the whalers making landfall in Lahaina after months at sea in tight quarters with not a female in sight. They embraced the practice, in more ways than one. But for the straight-laced missionaries arriving from puritanical New England, the sight of bronzed bodies swimming or paddling canoes out to greet their ship was a bit much. The nature loving Hawaiians, male and female, were wearing little more than smiles.

Spirit Vessel

Before the arrival of the first missionaries in 1820, Hawaiian woman wore the pa'u. This was made from a long piece of tapa cloth, usually about eight yards long and one yard wide. Tapa cloth is made from the fibrous inner bark of the paper mulberry tree. The tapa cloth was wound around the body several times. The end was tucked in at the waist, if you were a commoner and just below the bust if you were of the ali'i, or royal class. Either way, the breasts were bare, causing raised eyebrows at the least and/or full blown hyperventilation by the most offended. The garment ended just above the knees. The missionaries would have to do something about covering up all that bare skin before they began the business of saving souls.

The missionary wives arrived in the islands wearing fashionable dresses with high waists, long, tight sleeves and a form fitting narrow skirt. The ali'i women began experimenting with wearing English garments over the pa'u. This was both cumbersome and uncomfortable in the hot, humid climate. Some ladies of the ali'i persuaded the missionaries to make them dresses that had a better fit.

Many Hawaiian ali'i of that time period were tall and amply proportioned. To make a dress that would fit them, and that would serve as a pattern that would fit most Hawaiian women, the missionaries altered the original English style. They created a floor length dress with the material flowing from an above-the-bust yoke instead of from the high waistline. The garment had a high neckline and tight sleeves and covered just about every available inch of skin. Sometimes referred to as the "Mother Hubbard" dress because of its extreme modesty, the garment became known as the holoku.

Once the ali'i began to wear the holoku, the commoners started to follow suit. This was a total change of mindset for most Hawaiians. Clothing was considered optional and worn mostly to display status and often only by the ali'i and the kahuna classes. Kahunas were, and in today's native Hawaiian culture still are, the teachers, priests, healers, artists and others skilled in certain professions. But, the missionaries insisted that no one could enter the house of God, or be baptised, unless they were properly dressed.

Eventually some Hawaiians learned to sew. Commoners did not have access to the silks and other fine fabrics used by the upper classes, so they used tapa cloth for their holokus. Hawaiian men learned carpentry by building missionary houses. They traded work hours and koa wood planking for bolts of western-made cloth. By the 1830's the missionaries' quest to clothe the bare breast was almost complete. The holoku had all but replaced the pa'u.

In the 1870s the holoku became more of a formal gown. A train was added and since Hawaiian women were becoming more slender, the dresses became more form fitting. Pleats, lace and ruffles were often added, a nod to the European fashions of the time. By the 1890s, the holoku adopted the leg-o-mutton sleeves popular in the Victorian age. It is this design that remains popular in the Hawaii of today for formal occasions. White holokus are often worn as wedding dresses.

A more casual dress, the muu muu, was created for everyday wear. It had short sleeves, no train and not as many fashion trimmings. In the Victorian age, women's garments were floor length but shorter versions exist today. The garment factory at Hilo Hatties in Honolulu makes thousands of muu muus a year, most in a cotton or cotton blend. Fashioned of colorful floral patterns, short or long, ruffled or not, muu muus are a popular style of Aloha wear in modern Hawaii. World Teacher - Other World Style Education & Agent

The Aloha Shirt

The bare chests of the Hawaiian men apparently didn't offend the missionaries as much as the naked bosoms of the women. There was no outcry to cover their bodies from throat to ankle. The missionaries did encourage them to wear trousers rather than the malo, a sort of loin cloth made of tapa cloth, but it would be over a century before men got their own signature aloha garment.

In the 1920s and 1930s immigrants from Japan, Asia and the Philippines came to work in the cane and pineapple fields. They found that the embroidered silk shirts they were wearing were too hot and the shirttails were getting in the way during harvesting. The workers designed a new shirt with a straight bottom that was made from lighter materials. They were called Palaka shirts. Some were made from muted fabrics, including tapa cloth, which usually had geometric patterns. Others were boldly colored, made from imported Chinese silks and leftover Kimono cloth.

The phrase "Aloha shirt" was registered as a trade name in 1936 by Ellery Chung, owner of the King-Smith Clothiers store in Honolulu. He and his sister Ethel started making copies of the comfortable shirts and showing them in his shop window. Chung also placed ads in the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper, using his trademark name for the first time. The shirts sold well, catching the eye of local residents, tourists and surfers.

In 1961, Elvis Presley donned his red and white floral Aloha shirt for the cover shot of his soundtrack album for "Blue Hawaii." An Alfred Shaheen creation, that Aloha shirt got global exposure and quickly became a symbol of the Hawaiian Islands. Granted, the Hawaiian Eye television show that premiered in 1959 brought the shirt to the United States mainland, but Elvis' popularity was great for advertizing.