For the better part of the past four decades, the aloha shirt was one of the most divisive garments around. Beloved by Tommy Bahama-wearing businessmen who dream of endless vacations while loathed by the fashion elite, the aloha shirt has made a triumphant return over the past fifteen years as high fashion houses, such as Prada, Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton have embraced “ugly” fashion and channeled the aesthetics of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘90s cult classic Romeo + Juliet, which beautifully mashed up luxury tailoring with the look of American soldiers post-Vietnam. Yet, before its cultural desecration by Tommy Bahama and its recent runway resurrection, the aloha shirt already boasted one of the most complicated, multicultural and even celebrated histories of any existing garment.

While Ellery J. Chun is often credited with inventing the aloha shirt (or at least its proliferation), the garment in fact rose from complex mash of cultures prevalent in 19th and 20th century colonial Hawaii, as documented by Washington State University clothing historian Dr. Linda Bradley. In the early 1800s, the arrival of Westerners and their diseases to Hawaii resulted in the devastation of the local population. The result was an import of Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino laborers between the 1850s and early 1900s as American and Europeans developed plantations under Hawaii’s governing oligarchy.

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