The official uniform of Tom Selleck, Hunter S. Thompson, and hard-partying uncles the world over, Aloha Shirts (aka “Hawaiian Shirts") have long been synonymous with a certain kind of cool. In fact, since they first washed ashore in the 1930’s on the backs of American servicemen, they’ve gone from cool to kitsch and back again more times than anyone can count.
Anyone except Dale Hope, author of The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Island, who's a walking encyclopedia of Aloha history. His seminal book, originally released in 2000, is being reissued in June by Patagonia to mark the 30th anniversary of its Pataloha collection of Hawaiian-inspired shirts and dresses. Man of the World rang up Hope at his home in Hawaii to learn a little more about why these shirts mean so very much. —ASAF ROTMAN
MAN of the WORLD: What is it about Aloha shirts you find so fascinating?
DALE HOPE: In Hawaii, Aloha shirts are a huge industry. My whole deal was that I really wanted to pay tribute to everybody in the business that had been important and had been a part of it. I think everyone always gets attention if you’re the owner of the shirt company—Herb Ryner owned Kamehameha and is always mentioned. But the seamstresses, the artists, the people that did the cutting, the sewing. To me, they’re just as much heroes as the guys that had the balls and the money to make it all work. Without the labor, you wouldn’t have had an Aloha shirt industry in Hawaii. Because I worked in my dad’s clothing factory growing up, I saw those ladies every day. They fed me, they were nice to me, and they would take care of me. I just wanted to pay respects to them and give them credit for their role in making the Aloha shirt such an iconic piece of clothing.
In the old days, Aloha shirts were painted by hand, right?
Yes, and the artists are so important. I think they’re everything. The artists in Hawaii—thinking back in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s—they painted the shirts entirely by hand. They went out and interpreted what they were surrounded by. The flora, the fauna, the beautiful-smelling flowers, the water sports—surfing, canoeing, paddling, fishing—everything. They had to capture every nuance. Some of the original prints had 21 colors, and today you’re lucky if you get 12.
When I was making shirts myself in the 1990’s, I went to all of these fine artists and got them to design shirts. I thought I was pioneering new ground and then when I started doing research I found that guys in the 40’s and 50’s were working with fine artists all the time!
How did you get involved with Patagonia?
Rell Sunn—the legendary female surf figure—really initiated the whole Pataloha line. After she got sick, Patagonia tried to do it in-house, and eventually Yvonne [Chouinard, founder of Patagonia] came to Hawaii and asked me to help with their prints. While working at Patagonia I befriended the guy who heads up the Patagonia division in Japan who wanted to translate my book for the Japanese market. Patagonia America saw what the Japanese division did and thought they should do one in English, too.
Your book has become a collector’s items. How is the new edition different? What’s changed in the last 16 years?
Well, we’ve added over 150 pages to it, changed the layout completely, and added some other new stories about artists we didn’t know about back in 2000, as well as the whole Pataloha story, with Rell Sunn, the true ambassador of Aloha. There’s a big tribute to her in their. Rell, who passed away in 1998, always thought Patagonia should do a book on Aloha shirts, so it’s kinda cool that it’s come full circle and her dream has finally been realized.
Dale Hope’s book, The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Island, hits store this June. You can pre-order it here.