Thursday, September 29, 2011

A History on The Hawaiian Dress

I love vintage Hawaiian printed sarong dresses. LOVE them. Unfortunately they are out of my price range, but this doesn't stop me from looking at them every other day.

There are well-documented stores from the pre-World War II years of teenagers buying wonderful, finely printed Kabe crepe material, imported from Japan, in the dry-goods stores of downtown Honolulu. These young men had their mothers sew beautiful shirts from the fabric. That tradition of beautifully sewn printed shirts spread from the Asian dry-goods merchants and home-sewers to the tailors and makers of Hawai'i', creating a new style of colorful clothing.

This all took place in the late 1920s and early 1930s, at the same time that Hawai'i' was emerging as a paradise for tourists with the building of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu and the christening of the trio of magnificent cruise ships by Matson navigation, opening this majestic string of island to the world. Boatloads of visitors were charmed by hula dancers swaying to the rhythm of a lone 'ukulele, enchanted by Waikiki Beach boys riding the waves on their great wooden surfboards. For those who came from afar, nothing painted a more vivid picture of Hawai'i' than these bold shirts with their vibrant island.

The early Aloha shirts most often depicted ancient symbolic imagery of the Orient. Pine and plum tree prints represented long life, good fortune, and success. The images of a tiger symbolized strength and courage. Prints of bamboo denoted strength and flexibility. Early designs were also graced with traditional images of Mount Fuji, ornate temples, or peaceful landscapes.

It was not long before local artist began to design textiles that captivated the dreamy, romantic lifestyle of their island home. Early prints that were intended for home interiors soon made their way into clothing. Elsie Das designed beautiful botanical prints of native plants hibiscus, breadfruit, night-blooming cereus as well as a humorous pattern incorporating hula girls. Ethel Chun Lum designed shirts sold by her brother Ellery Chun at his store, King-Smith Clothiers. Ellery Chun was the first person to officially register the name "Aloha Shirt." Ether produced designs based on her first cruise to the mainland U.S., including flying fish seen from the deck of a Matson liner. According to Hawaiian fabric designer Elsie Das, a Japanese manufacturer once printed a set of her floral designs on heavy satini by mistake.

"These started a vogue in Hollywood. Ginger Rogers, Janet Gaynor and other stars bought bolts of the stuff and had it made into 'seductive gowns.' The result was an epidemic of Hawaiian designs, with hibiscus and ginger breaking out on table cloths, napkins and scarves all over the country." "Elsie Das, Artist Designer," an article by William Davenport in Paradise of the Pacific, p 9, 1963.

Garment manufacturers including Musa Shiya, Watamulls, Kamehameha, Kahala, Surfriders, Alfred Shaheen ( By 1950 Shaheen was printing, dyeing, and finishing his own fabric. By 1959, the year Hawaii became a state, he had more than 400 employees working for him and was grossing more than $4 million a year! ), Duke Kahanamoku and Branfleet (later know as Kahala), which initially produced Aloha shirts with Asian motifs in their humble factories in the mid-1930s, began to commission designs from local artists. Soon, visitors and locals alike were donning these wearable postcards awash with coconut trees, surfers, outrigger canoes, hula girls, and endless varieties of colorful tropical flowers, birds, and fish.

"Aloha shirts put Hawai'i' on the map," says renowned fabric designer John "King Keoni" Meigs. "The first thing people did when they arrived was to make a beeline for a department store to buy one."

Meigs was one of many flamboyant designers in the Gold Age of Aloha shirts, which ran from the 1930's to the 1950's. for inspiration, they shared the sunsets, beaches, flowers, and rainforests of Hawai'i'. They and their visionary colleagues - manufactures, artists, and retailers - formed the community that created this memorable art form.

Celebrities of the time - such as John Barrymore, Bing Crosby, and Elvis Presley - were widely photographed wearing the shirts. Duke Kahamamoku, Hawai'i's most beloved surfer and Olympic swimming champion, was the earliest and greatest promoter of the Aloha shirt. Duke even had his own line of shirts, which are widely coveted by collectors today.

Movie stars, crooners and politicians did a fine job of promoting Hawaiian clothing. Montgomery Cliff Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine and Frank Sinatra all wore beautiful Hawaiian shirts in the movie From Here to Eternity. Ginger Rogers wore seductive satin gowns of Hawaiian designs while Bing Crosby sported his unique combination of Hawaiian shirt and porkpie hat. And Betty Grable did a promo pin-up shot wearing a gorgeous Hawaiian-style swimsuit in the 1940s.

A vintage Hawaiian sarong dress is an average of around $300-$400.   More depending on designer, print, whether or not it comes with a matching bolero and of course, condition. Hawaiian reproduction is much more affordable.   The Whirling Turban stands out as at the top of gorgeous Hawaiian reproduction.
Which one would I get?? HHmmmmmmmm...this style definitely, probably this fabric or something very close:

A bolero is a must for me, I hate my arms showing!
They also do Hawaiian wedding dresses. Bernie Dexter looks beautiful!

Please comment on any links or photos of you wearing Hawaiian...I would love to read or see!
The following dresses were available on Etsy at time of post and are among my lustable favourites.


  1. That yellow one with the black rosette at the waist! And those green pineapples!

  2. My mother lived in Hawaii in the 70s and has some amazing dresses from there, including some silk print dresses. They are just a teeny bit too small for me. When I lose a couple of pounds, I am definitely sporting them!

  3. O.O WOW!!! Such a wonderful post! *faints from all the gorgeousness* *dreams of beautiful Hawaiian prints whist unconscious*

  4. know soooo much about Hawaiian fashion history!!!! These dresses are so beautiful:D I'm sure they'll look great on you!

  5. Frances. I know! They are all gorgeous.

    Lacquered Lady. I would LOVE to have family members with gorgeous vintage clothes....lucky you!

    idrinknailpolish. I know....if only I had an unlimited bank account!

    Minnie. No, not really. I just Googled it!! Thanks chook!

    Anon or . All ANON comments are deleted from this blog....this is a friendly place and we are all on a first name basis here. Please feel free to repost your comment under your 'proper' username.

  6. Oh they are ALL beautiful - I especially love the last one as I am also a bolero fan. Isn't Bernie spectacular!

    Sarah xxx

  7. I'd buy them all... they're so pretty! :)

  8. Aloha, Wonderful info...I am about to launch my own line of vintage inspired hawaiian dresses so please visit my website and I should have them up by the end of November! Mahalo to all the pin up beauties around the world!


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