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July 2001, Vol. 26 No. 2
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When it comes to the historic and cultural influences on dress

hula dancerfs and palm trees taken from fabric design

We are what we wear

Hawai'i’s biggest export isn’t pineapple, macadamia nuts or papaya, but it is influencing Asian and mainland tastes. The Hawai'i garment industry is the largest group of manufacturers in Hawai'i with annual sales of a half-billion dollars according to the Hawai'i Fashion Industry Association. Apparel manufacturers export 30 percent of their products to the mainland and abroad, accounting for $165 million in outside sales.

From the first adaptation of Western dress into a holokuand the humble beginnings of the immigrant-influenced aloha shirt, Hawaiian attire has evolved into everyday work wear in the islands and popular casual wear abroad. Collectors from the mainland and Asia pay up to $5,000 for vintage aloha shirts, and stars from Hollywood’s Bruce Willis to rapper Jay-Z sport aloha wear in movies and music videos. Renamed “resort wear,” aloha fashion has been paraded down runways by American and European designers such as Tommy Bahama and Karl Lagerfeld.

Linda Arthur portrait

UH Manoa Professor Linda B. Arthur,right, author of Aloha Attire: Hawaiian Dress in the 20th Century, has documented the 180-year history of aloha wear and Hawai'i’s fashion industry. Arthur’s teaching and research in the history and social-psychological aspects of dress earned her Hawai'i Professor of the Year honors from the Carnegie Foundation and Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

In the beginning

The rich history of aloha wear dates from the 1820s, when New England missionaries arrived in the Hawaiian Islands. The ali'i adopted Western fashion, separating themselves from the commoners. Asked to make the dresses, the petite missionary wives had to improvise to accommodate the 300- to 400-pound ali'i women. They relaxed the fit and raised the yolk to create a long, loosely fitted Hawaiian dress called the holoku. “There was no fitted waistline so you had air moving in it, which is practical,” says Arthur.

The mu'umu'u was originally a chemise worn under the holoku, but Hawaiian women felt it made no sense to wear two pieces of clothing in a hot, humid environment. Mu'umu'u were used as house-wear and sleepwear. With time, the holokubecame more formal—a train was added and intricate brocade, lace and fancy fabrics were applied. Tourism spawned use of tropical prints in the 1930s, and the holokubecame more fitted following invention of the zipper. Today the holoku is reserved for formal occasions, such as weddings and balls while the mu'umu'u presides as everyday casual wear.

Arthur wrote her book when she couldn’t find a textbook for her Hawaiian fashion course. She also wanted to correct popular misinformation about the history of the aloha shirt.

The first aloha shirts used imported Japanese print fabric—kimono silk fabrics or kabe crepe—as early as the 1920s, Arthur says. Shirt maker Musa-Shiya was first to use the term “aloha shirts,” in an advertisement that appeared June 28, 1935. Ellery Chun, a tailor, trademarked the aloha shirt in the 1930s as tourism in the islands began. Hawaiian tropical print designs first appeared in 1938, but were worn only by tourists.

Disruption of shipping to Hawai'i during World War II induced locals to wear aloha shirts for the first time. The “silkies”—busy, vivid rayon shirts—predominated from 1945 to 1955. By 1960, a state proclamation allowed a plain version of the aloha shirt to be worn in the workplace; later, reverse-print fabric was introduced as a subtle, conservative variation.

Sovereignty and Hawaiian rights spurred social consciousness about Hawaiian culture during the 1970s. The renaissance of things Hawaiian was accompanied by a resurgence of Hawaiian clothing late in the decade. With the retro look in fashion, Hawaiian shirts from the 1950s are increasingly popular on the mainland and in Asia as pricey collector items. “The Japanese are probably the biggest consumers of vintage aloha wear, and Californians are second,” observes Arthur.

Influential fashion

Local designers have responded to the vintage aloha wear craze by bringing back historic patterns. Reproductions of 60-year-old designs are being reintroduced by such companies as Kamehameha Garment Co., Tori Richards and Pineapple Juice.

“Overall everyone, even outside the industry, was looking for more color,” explains Cheryl Maeda (’76 Manoa), professor of fashion technology at Maui CC. In the cycle of fashion, it’s once again Hawai'i’s time, she says. The challenge for Hawai'i designers is to “accommodate our fashions so that local people will buy them, but not be so off the wall that people on the mainland can’t wear them.”

Hawai'i’s garment industry has contributed to the popularity of casual wear. Local clothing migrated to the mainland and beyond in tourists’ luggage. California teen surfers grew up to become Silicon Valley executives and shed three-piece suits for casual, or aloha, Fridays, notes Arthur.

“Hawai'i brought a relaxed and fun attitude to clothing,” Maeda says. Corporations like IBM joined the trend. Professional Development Manager Don Kawashima dons an aloha shirt everyday at IBM in San Jose. The mainland native began wearing aloha shirts in 1993, when he first visited the University of Hawai'i to recruit students for IBM jobs.

“Originally I began wearing them to say that this was 'not your mother’s IBM’ and that IBM’s dress code, among other things, had changed from the days of the dark suit with striped tie and wingtip shoes,” he says. “I really enjoy the color, the prints and the friendliness they convey.”

Colleagues adapted to his dress. “They have gotten used to seeing me in aloha shirts, so when I’m not, it is sure to bring a comment,” he quips. Quite a few employees are following his fashion trend, including the 180 Hawai'i transplants at IBM San Jose.

A shirt of many cultures

Arthur’s teaching and research specializations focus on the intersections between culture, gender and ethnicity, as seen in dress. Her most recent work focuses on traditional dress in Hawai'i and Asia.

Five ethnic influences converged to create the aloha shirt we know today, she says. The basic design lines are western. The Filipino barong tagalog contributed to the aloha shirt being worn untucked. Chinese and Japanese tailors stitched the shirts. Japanese textiles and Hawaiian print also shaped the aloha shirt’s development.

“Aloha attire is a pan-ethnic expression,” says Arthur. “What it does is show varied influences coming to Hawai'i. Clothing shows us that all the ethnicities have an impact on what we wear.”

That’s why UH Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources’ maintains an Asian, Hawaiian and Western Costume Collection. About 15,000 pieces, mostly from donors, are used in the classroom, for research and in public exhibitions. The nearly 1,200 pieces in the Hawaiian portion comprise the only existing collection of its type in the nation. It documents the impact of numerous immigrant groups and illustrates the adaptation of costume to Hawaiian lifestyles.
“Its not just a pretty thing,” says Arthur. “The collection provides a visual expression of culture, a way to look into cultures and see what makes them tick. Their attitudes, their beliefs are embedded.”

Jenny Tom (BA ’96 Manoa) is a public information officer in University and Community Relations and UHM master’s degree candidate in communication.

UH programs produce fashion designers and workers

Honolulu CC’s fashion technology program dates to territorial days, when girls took classes to learn how to sew. Today’s students are more efficient, more technically adept. Five computerized Gerber design instruments—the industry standard for grading and cutting fabric—allow students to design patterns without lifting a pencil or pair of scissors. Because enrollment is predominantly female, men interested in fashion technology can qualify for a tuition waiver under gender equity provisions. For information, call 808 845-9203 or visit

Maui CC offers an associate of applied science degree, certificate of completion and certificate of achievement in fashion technology. Students range in age from 17 to 83. To meet their interest in becoming entrepreneurs, the program offers comprehensive training in apparel production and fashion design as well as retraining and upgrading for those already employed in the field. For information, call 808 984-3292 or visit

At UH Manoa, textiles and clothing is the second most popular major in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. A bachelor of science is available with specialization in apparel design, fashion merchandising or fashion promotion or as an individually tailored program. For information, call 808 956-8133 or visit

Hawaiian by design

Joy Nagaue portrait

Graduates of UH fashion programs go into costume design, merchandising, retail management and production. They work at Hilo Hatties, Tori Richards, GAP, Talbots and TJ Maxx. Some UH graduates make their mark as entrepreneurs with their own labels or shops. Both Danene Lunn (’87 Honolulu) and Jonelle Fujita (’89 Manoa) turned craft-fair clothing into successful retail shops—Lunn with her Hawaiian quilt–inspired contemporary line at Manuheali'i in Kailua and Fujita with her mother-daughter designs at Cinnamon Girl stores. Still others are teaching a new generation of fashion students, including Honolulu CC Instructor Joy Nagaue ('69 Manoa), right, who worked as a designer for several years and took time off to raise a family before discovering “how much I enjoy teaching and giving back to a field that I absolutely love.”

Ann K. Kagan (’85 Honolulu CC) credits Nagaue and Instructors Lillian Zane and Karen Hastings with helping her succeed. A Vietnam refuge who could barely speak English when she started college, Kagan worked at Pomegranates in the Sun, Princess Ka'iulani and Wai Kahala Fashions before starting her own business, Ann K. Kahala Fashions in 1996. “If you have something unique, you will always survive,” says Kagan, who offers services from simple alterations to tailoring and custom designs for men and women.

Gail Rabideau (’69 Manoa) has been sewing and making patterns since she was 11 years old. “So, when I told everyone I was going into design, nobody was surprised,” she says. President of You and Me Naturally, an O'ahu clothing manufacturer and a 27-year veteran of the fashion industry in Hawai'i, she started the first petite collection for local women. “It makes sense in Hawai'i,” she says. “Most of the women, I would say 50 percent, are 5-feet-4 and under. We have a really good market in Hawai'i.”

Consumers who don’t know her name have probably admired her designs or seen her labels, including Asian-influenced Aimee D. Petites collections and the Hawai'i-inspired Kaua'iana label. Additional labels, including Naturally Yours, Naturally Petite, Amber, Naturals Honolulu, We Petite and Lia G, are carried by major retailers and specialty stores in Hawai'i and on the mainland.

Rabideau credits UH with preparing her to head You and Me Naturally. “What the University of Hawai'i does is broaden your horizons. You have to take courses in textiles, business and liberal arts. It makes you a well-rounded person,” she says. “Graduating from the university gives you self confidence. When you go out there you have the knowledge and skills to succeed.”

You and Me Naturally received the 1996 Governor’s Cup, Hawai'i Apparel Manufacturer of the Year in the contemporary category. Rabideau employs 65 people, including UH Manoa graduates Alison Tanaka (’95) and Cyndi Boyd (’92) as designers and Joanna Wong (’71) and Christine Pamaylaon (’88) as pattern makers.

“The fashion business in Hawai'i will never, never, die,” predicts Rabideau. “I don’t think people realize that Hawai'i is a special place and people all over the world look at our products in a special way. A garment that says 'made in Hawai'i’ has a special magic to it.”

Joseph Reyes ('89 Manoa) admits he didn’t know the difference between an A-line and princess line before taking classes at UH Manoa in 1989. “I didn’t know anything about sewing and fashion. All the basics I learned at the university.”

A design assistant in his sixth year at Anne Namba Designs, Reyes helps create apparel for the mature professional woman who wants something a little out of the ordinary. Namba’s fashions use antique kimono fabric in new, sophisticated styles—structured suits, flowing dresses, evening wear and beaded and sequined items for the modern woman. The company has extended its product lines to add to their customer base, starting a bridal line using Japanese fabric to create contemporary gowns and adding a men’s line with a limited collection of jackets, vests and shirts.

“There is a lot of competition out there,” Reyes says. “High-end clothing is a luxury, not a necessity.”

Want to help with the collection?

The University of Hawai'i Costume Collection is a working laboratory of historical and modern Hawaiian, Asian and Western clothing. Beginning in the fall, it will also be the source for rotating displays in a new exhibition room at UH Manoa’s Miller Hall.

Volunteers are needed and donations are welcomed. For information, call Linda Arthur at 808 956-2234, e-mail or write Department of Family and Consumer Science, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, 2515 Campus Road, Honolulu, HI 96822.