UKULELE MUSINGS 2020—No. 1—”A Hawaiian (and First Night) Tradition: The Aloha Shirt”

UKULELE MUSINGS 2020, No. 1—”A Hawaiian (and First Night) Tradition: The Aloha Shirt” 

Well, here we go again.  It’s a brand-new year and I am taking a brand-new approach with my ukulele musings for 2020.  Rather than being locked into themes and schedules as I have been for the past four years, I’m going to allow myself to be “footloose and fancy free.”  In other words, I have given myself permission to drift from topic to topic, to explore some new things, and to dip into postings past for inspiration this year.  So, come along (and strum along) for the ride—a surprise every time!

So, let’s start out with something I was reminded of during our First Night performance here in Northampton on New Year’s Eve.  The music, of course, was lots of fun.  But, looking around the group assembled, there was a common denominator—our Hawaiian shirts.  A bit of cultural appropriation?  Yes.  But ukuleles and Hawaiian shirts go together like “C,” “F,” “G7,” and back to “C.”   

As with my previous postings, all is not frivolity, so I’ll start with some serious scholarship about these shirts, their history, and place in island culture.

To go back a couple of hundred years or so, the first shirts associated with the islands were not what we think of today as a “Hawaiian Shirt.”  Rather, these were simple, loose, long-sleeved work shirts, modeled after those worn by visiting British and American sailors.

They soon became the “uniform” for pineapple and cane field workers and island cowboys.

These came to be known as “palaka” shirts, from the Hawaiian word for “smock.” For the island trade, British cotton mills wove this denim-like fabric in a unique checked pattern which soon became known as “palaka plaid.” 

Still made and sold today, this has become an iconic garment embraced by many native Hawaiians.

Moving on, in the 1920s a Japanese tailor in Honolulu came up with the novel idea of making shirts from odd remnants of printed silk he had on hand after making traditional kimonos. 

These patterned, brightly colored shirts achieved almost instant popularity and soon became the standard for the local beach and surf crowd. And, of course, these became a must-have for the growing number of Mainland tourists.

Then, in the 1930s, a Chinese tailor made and marketed a variation on these originals and had the entrepreneurial wit to copyright the name “Aloha Shirt.”  The go-to garment that we ukulele players know and love was born!

Soldiers and Sailors stationed in Hawaii during World War II brought their colorful and casual silk and rayon shirts back home, as did more and more tourists in the ‘50s and ‘60s. 

What was a cheap souvenir in those days has spawned an industry and early, well designed shirts have become scarce collectors’ items today. 

Some sell for hundreds of dollars and even find themselves in museums and galleries.  

Today, the Aloha Shirt (now the generic name) has become standard business attire for many in the islands—replacing neckties and jackets— during nearly nine months of the year. 

As would be expected, the Aloha style even extends to those formal occasions where a tux would be called for in other climes.

For the girls, the cover-up of the muumuu (forced on bare-breasted native girls by those shocked nineteenth century missionary wives) moved from palaka plaid, to intricate patterns,

to the bright florals we see today in lovely dresses—

as well as the missionary-shocking crop-tops! 

While Hawaiian flora and activities dominate fabric patterns, just about any theme can be found on a Hawaiian shirt these days.  Ukuleles, of course!

Adult beverages, naturally!

Other interests or proclivities, you name them!

Presidents have worn them.

Along with tats and a nose ring, no less!

And even some police officers and police station mug shots show them!

Movie stars and movies made them famous.

And now, the BIG question!  Do you wear a Hawaiian shirt tucked in, or not tucked in? The answer is simple—as with all shirts with a straight hem and side slits, you wear them UN-TUCKED and flying in the breeze.

Except, maybe, with a blazer in the office.

Or on a fashion show runway,

 But is it acceptable to wear a shirt unbuttoned?  It all depends.  .  .

And, they even work for really BIG guys like me!

So, let’s keep making music in our Hawaiian shirts for another year.

Speaking of music, how about a rap version of an “Aloha Shirt Song?” For next year’s First Night performance? Perhaps not . . .

Rap Version of “Hawaiian Shirt Nation”: 


Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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