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An aloha shirt is a particularly brightly patterned and often short sleeved button down cotton shirt. Aloha shirts are closely associated with the American state of Hawaii, where the name “Aloha Shirt” was first trademarked. The shirts can be found all over Hawaii, and are taken home to the mainland by thousands of tourists every year as mementos of their tropical adventures.
In Hawaiian, the word aloha is associated with more than just hello and goodbye. Aloha also implies affection, compassion, love, and a sense of welcoming. Many Hawaiians value the “aloha spirit,” a sense of friendly laid back welcome which permeates the entire state. For visitors, the aloha shirt is a brightly colored and fun way of bringing the aloha home, as many shirts incorporate appealing tropical designs and other reminders of Hawaii.
Hawaii is steeped in Polynesian culture, which places a high value on brightly colored, beautiful textiles. In the 1920s and 1930s, this translated into handsome casual shirts which were worn by younger Hawaiians all over the islands. Visitors grew an affection for the shirts as well, and began to buy them to take home to friends on the mainland, or to wear themselves. In 1936, Ellery Chun trademarked the aloha shirt, realizing that it had a large potential market. Appearances in popular films of the 1950s cemented the aloha shirt's position as a cultural icon for Americans.
The aloha shirt is often thought of as too brightly colored, and a little bit tacky. Original aloha shirts, however, incorporated beautiful paintings of tropical scenery and flowers on a variety of textiles, sometimes printing the pattern on the reverse side of the shirt to further mute it. During the Second World War, when a number of military members were stationed in Hawaii, the aloha shirt began to take on more garish patterns, because sailors and soldiers preferred them. It is still possible to find more sedately patterned traditional aloha shirts, usually made by companies located in Hawaii and run by native Hawaiians.
In Hawaii, these more serene aloha shirts are worn by many male citizens in the office, around town, and often on semi-formal occasions. The warm weather of Hawaii makes mainland formal wear oppressively hot, so the aloha shirt allows Hawaiians to dress nicely without being excessively warm. In general, aloha shirts in Hawaii and on the mainland are worn only by men, although some companies do manufacture shirts for women.
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