The Tropical Print or A Lesson in Hawaiian Fashion History


When it comes to floral patterns, I’m mercurial in my tastes. I hate everything dainty, delicate or otherwise feminine but sometimes the right colors will lead me to break my self-imposed rules. I love and hate rose patterns with equal measure. I’d never carry a floral bag but love a bold floral pant. I’ve never been able to sort out why one pattern is loved and the other abhorred like the plague. And every time I think I’ve found my rule, I buy another floral print that breaks it.


But would I be caught dead in a Hawaiian shirt? Never. And I hate nearly every Hawaiian print I meet. It’s tourist tchotchke at best, gaudy cultural appropriation at worst. It makes me think of Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Tom Selleck in Magnum PI. It has so many connotations, few of them good. It’s either drunken frat boys on Jamaican beaches or out-of-touch dads at the bowling alley. They would have a kind of ironic charm if they weren’t so ubiquitous (and bright). And there’s nothing worse than living in a sub-Arctic climate and seeing a palm-tree festooned shirt. It makes it seem all the more obscene that some of us live 5 mins from a gorgeous beach on the Pacific and some of us face unbearable Siberian winters.


But then along comes a dress. This dress. Made in Hawaii by Royal Creations, a Honolulu -based clothing company that specializes in the aforementioned sartorial violations, this retro-style rockabilly dress gets it right. I’d be remiss not to note here that I didn’t buy it from Royal Creations (I will not be financing the palm tree frenzy) but from a wonderful little vintage shop, Tandem Vintage, housed at Find Furnish here in Minneapolis.


The key to this dress is that its whimsical nature is balanced out by proper form. It’s recognizably “tropical” but the dress is thoughtfully designed. A sweetheart neckline with full skirt (and a little hidden pocket) gives it a strong 50’s feel. But it’s also bold, graphic, and the colors–turquoise, red, white and black– bypass the typical colors and pattern of the “Hawaii” shirt.  It has enough soul to catch the eye–it stands out in a crowd– but not so much that it leaves you riding the line of ironic excess. And it’s fun to wear. 

But once I got on board with this dress, it led me to thinking about the origin of the dreaded Hawaiian shirt (also known as the “Aloha” shirt).  It’s easy to forget but it’s a style that has its roots in the complex historical relationship between mainland America and the Hawaiian islands. But while some (not all) of the prints are bonafide cultural appropriations of native Hawaiian and Polynesian designs, the history points to a confusing combination of sources that makes it a little harder to call it a cut and dry case of appropriation.


When it comes to the shirt itself, Wikipedia notes both a Chinese storeowner who was allegedly the first to sell it while another Japanese store owner apparently made them out of kimono fabric but both are dated to the mid-1930’s in Honolulu. It took virtually no time before islanders of every persuasion began clamoring for the new style. Either way, it’s a properly 20th century invention: a hybrid mash of the existing local visual catalogue and waves of immigration. It’s a “genuine” Hawaiian object for sure, but like all claims to authenticity, its actual origins are murky, disputed and the stuff of legend.

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So why did they become so popular? By virtue of the Americans soldiers stationed in Hawaii, who returned from their duties with Hawaiian shirts in tow. Like many of American’s now-classic clothing trends (bell-bottoms being another), the Hawaiian shirt belongs to the strange sartorial history of the American military. If it’s the calling card of Hawaii, it’s also the calling card of America’s military presence in Hawaii, one which dates to the late 19th century and is woven into the stuff of national myth.



In other words, as long as Pearl Harbor remains a part of the story America tells about itself, the Aloha shirt will not be far behind. And if you don’t believe me, just take a look at “Christmas Waltz,” the 9th episode in Season 5 of Mad Men, in which a drunk Roger Sterling commemorates  Pearl Harbor day by wearing an eye-gougingly awful rendition of the Aloha shirt. It’s a subtle piece of critique that links the grandiose gestures of  American historical memory with tacky tourist garb while also reminding us that the Aloha shirt is both here to stay and worthy of our interest. Don Draper’s sojourn to Hawaii in the same season also recalls the utopian space Hawaii once occupied in the American vacation imaginary. To return from Hawaii with an Aloha shirt was a sign that you had arrived. To be rich was quite literally to experience paradise.


Here’s another curious piece of trivia: the origins of Causual Friday are due to the much maligned shirt. In the 1960s, another local manufacturer of the Hawaiian shirt began to pushing for the shirt to become part of the standard wardrobe for the professional class of the islands–from businessmen to politicians– and after offering a series of free shirts to the Senate and the House, the Hawaiian shirt was given the green light (but only on Fridays). It was termed “Operation Liberation” and it began the now decades-long transformation in sartorial expectations at the office. As it turns out, Hawaii has had an extraordinary impact on the choices we make when we get dressed in the morning.

And as was to be expected, the Hawaiian shirt made its way into every possible piece of clothing and accessory, from shorts to hats, dresses to umbrellas. And while I’m not going to be sporting the Aloha anytime soon, I do love this dress. It’s spectacular. So don’t dismiss the Hawaiian print wholesale. It might just surprise you.


Even though Phd life is eating up all my spare time, I do love to hear your comments so please post below!


Dress: Royal Creations (@tandemvintage)

Bag: Vintage Crown Lewis (Arc’s Value Village)

Heels: Emerson Fry

Earrings: Buffalo Exchange

Photo Credits: Vanessa Cambier

Scene of the Crime: Seward (Minneapolis )





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