Thursday, October 8, 2009

Good Sh*t From Hawaii: Aloha Shirts for Aloha Friday

In Honolulu, the alternative to the business casual of denim shirts, is the Aloha Shirt. In fact, it is less an alternative than it is an institution in its own right. For as long as I can remember, long before "I.T." specialists anonymously buzzed the hallways of quiet law firms in their Dockers and jeans shirts, there was the Aloha Shirt, worn daily by bankers, CPAs, and all other professionals. My father wore one to Equitable five days a week. The Aloha Shirt, especially those made by venerable local clothiers have always been acceptable business wear downtown.

I, on the other hand, took a long time to warm up to the idea of colorful patterned shirts as anything other than tacky, even in this Aloha State. Of course, I changed my attitude, especially when I realized that many tasteful patterns could be had. Add to that the comfort of cool short sleeves in our tropical climate and the fact that many of the nicest ones are made right here in Hawaii, and I'm ready to defend the Aloha Shirt against the sniping of any sartorialist.

To the right you find the classic Reyn Spooner, an almost always muted affair, unencumbered of the many garish colors associated with the Aloha Shirt of the cheesy variety. This one was given to me by my sister because it depicted outrigger canoe paddlers, and I love it. Pull this shirt over your head, tuck it into a pair of tropical weight dress pants or, of course, khakis, and you can hit the board room, deposition, or country club without fear of being underattired. Just don't go to court in one, unless it's a settlement conference in chambers. Going on the record is still a suit and tie occasion, as well it should be. But the Reyn Spooner is about as Establishment as they come around here. In the late fifties, Reyn McCullogh, a businessman from Catalina Island, California, saw the potential that jet travel and statehood offered Hawaii. Ruth Spooner was already a master seamstress making the best shirts and surf trunks in Waikiki when Reyn brought his venture here. Like the formation of a law firm, both their names graced the letterhead and Reyn Spooner was born. Now, whether Trad or Prep or modern, and you don't want to swim in a world of cheese, the Reyn Spooner is the Safe Bet of Aloha Shirts, .

To the left is the Kahala*, since 1936 another member of the venerable Battleship Row of Aloha wear. The Reyn Spooner may be a safe bet brand, but there's nothing safer in pattern than blue and white, for sure. Not having any court appearances, I wore mine this past friday, so that I could seamlessly go straight from work to happy hour. Aloha Friday existed long before silicon valley execs could even imagine casual friday. In Honolulu, every friday is casual and to a lesser extent monday through thursday is a sort of friday. Matched with some pegged chinos and my Jolly Roger belt (thanks John) and Weejuns, I like to think I've got that travelling surfer vibe from The Endless Summer going on.

So far two shirts, two brands and I have yet to detect the stink of cheese.

Manuheali'i is the name of a label from the Windward Side of Oahu, in Kailua, a place that some locals still consider the other side of the moon rather than just the other side of the island. Although I've lived here for almost 40 years, I still get lost in Kailua, because I'm from over the mountains. And Kailua is no one horse town, either! Manu is a relatively new brand, so new in fact, that they don't tout their age on their website. My wife seems to love their patterns and has gifted me a trio of their shirts. The one below is my favorite, a pullover (half placket) with tanglefern print. Quietly sprinkled into their design is their script logo. My wife has taken the liberty of gifting the exact same patterns to herself and our son. The two of them are the only people on the planet I would ever wear matching clothes with, and with these Manu prints, I must say it's still not an overload of pattern.

But really, the best reason to wear an Aloha Shirt, in my book, is because you want to "kick back" and relax, maybe have a mai tai at the Halekulani Hotel House Without A Key or enjoy some finger food and stingers with the Jetsons at Honolulu's last rotating restaurant, The Top of Waikiki. If that's the case, don't even worry about business casual. Just do what Honolulu does best: casual casual.

What follows are some of my fun Aloha Shirts, ones I probably wouldn't wear to the office, but ones I'm proud to wear to anything from fancy cocktails to baby lu'au. To the right is my Primo Beer shirt by Go Barefoot, another gift from my wife, this time for Valentine's Day while we were engaged. This shirt usually goes untucked with Duck Head shorts or my Levi's. I've gotten many compliments from locals who remember this Hawaiian beer from the sixties and seventies when it was the choice of everyone from fishermen to politicians.

Next is another favorite of mine, another Reyn Spooner with nifty graphics featuring the Disney superheroes, the Incredibles. Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Dash, and Violet the Invisible Teen are all depicted, as are second-bananas like Frozone and the Edith Head-like "Edna Mode". Man I loved that movie. If you've never seen it (and what OnceABachelor with a kid hasn't?), it's cooler than Mad Men for sure, and an absolute must-see.
Next is a sweet kodachrome-toned job, again by Reyn Spooner, but designed by deified sixties surfer Phil Edwards. This pattern celebrates surfing's early days, with the names of some noted surf spots like Makaha and Waimea Bay printed right on the shirt and mixed in with some classic surf images. This is a tough shirt to pair with anything other than very faded blue jeans, although I can get away wearing fancy linens and a pair of dainty Coach loafers in tan leather with it. No socks, please. Then my wife is putty, but that's another story.

And last but not least is my famous (at least around here) party Aloha Shirt, although it's not made in Hawaii. I bought this orange and green Attitude Adjuster in Bora Bora, when I was accompanying students on an environmental awareness exchange through the islands of Tahiti. This shirt gives new meaning to the term Go To Hell. It really lets the rest of the party-goers know what your intentions are. This shirt is Strong Medicine, and I don't wear it often, but I love it.

I will square off against any clothes horse in its defense, and in defense of all of my beloved Aloha Shirts.

* By the way, all the photographs from the Kahala website were taken by a photographer friend of mine, Joss Descoteaux, who specializes in paddling and surf themed photography.

1 comment:

M.Lane said...

What a fantastic article. A real primer on authentic Hawaiian shirts and very interesting. I have always loved them and now I know the real goods. I'll start looking for them.