Little did I realize it in the late spring of 1967, that my new shirt was the heart and soul of Hawaiian shirts. Joe, my new high school buddy, gave me a Barong Tagalog. Before I met them, my best friend’s family had lived in the Phillipines in Manila. Joe taught me much of what I know about Filipino culture.
Actually, the Barong Tagalog was not brand new, but it was in pristine, excellent condition. Joe said that he had outgrown the shirt and knew that I would like it. He explained that Barong Tagalogs are worn during formal occasions with black dress slacks and black shoes. The garments are worn with the top button fastened, without a necktie, and not tucked into pants.
My Barong Tagalog was a long-sleeved shirt, tailored from hand-woven banana fabric. It was an undyed, off-white color and felt very smooth and slightly stiff to the touch. At the breast was an embroidered geometric design in dark brown stitching. I tried it on. It was a perfect fit. I eventually wore it to several dress-up events and always received compliments about the shirt. I kept the Barong Tagalog as a memento for many years after my friend and his family moved away.
The Barong Tagalog’s share in the evolution of the Hawaiian shirt, aka Aloha shirt, is by the cut and tailoring of the garments. In the 1920s Filipinos were part of the migration to the Hawaiian Islands of people from Japan and other Asian regions to work the sugarcane plantations. The elements of the original Aloha shirts were the Barong Tagalog, Japanese Kimono fabric, and Native Hawaiians’ own, traditional patterned fabric used in their indigenous clothing.
The sugarcane workers wore the palaka, a comfortable short-sleeved shirt made of checkered Kimono cloth constructed along the lines of the Barong Tagalog. Eventually the shirts became a favorite of Japanese men and boys.
In the 1920s, Yale Educated, native born Ellery Chun returned to the Islands and took over his father’s Chinese general store. In an effort to appeal to the wider Hawaiian community, Chun decided to sell palakas constructed of Kimono fabric that was printed in bold patterns and bright colors.
In 1930, one of Chun’s competitors, Musa-Shiya, created his own version of the Palaka and marketed them for just under a dollar apiece. The current incarnation of the Aloha shirt was designed and marketed in 1932 by Ti Haw Ho, the owner of a surf and sportswear shop. The store’s shirt retained the basic Palaka style but the fabrics were more bold and colorful. The printed designs included the familiar, clichéd palm trees, large flower blooms, Hula girls, pineapples, and so forth.
By the 1940s more sellers entered the market utilizing other fabric choices like silk. Fabric designers also tried their skills at new patterns and pictures. The shirts gained popularity among tourists and military personnel on leave. Shirts of this period have become highly sought after collectors’ items.
In 1951, President Harry Truman was photographed on vacation in Hawaii, wearing an Aloha shirt. The newspaper photo triggered a mainland fashion craze. Other noteworthy men also wore the shirts. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope were big fans of the Aloha shirt. Interest was kept alive when Elvis Presley donned the shirts for “Blue Hawaii”. Aloha shirts of this type are still worn today.
Regarding my personal enjoyment of Hawaiian shirts, I still have my first one in storage. In 1982, my roommate Felix flew to Hawaii on vacation. He brought back souvenirs for his friends. His gift to me was an indigo blue flowered, silk Aloha shirt.
To me, Aloha shirts, in addition to Barong Tagalogs, symbolize friendship.