In this installment of My Heels Are Killing Me,Sonia Sly heads to Te Papa to find out about historical and contemporary views on the Aloha shirt.
Clothing can send a powerful message about who we are and where we feel we belong in the world, acting as a cultural signifier and a means to express our identity. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Hawaiians have been proudly wearing the Aloha shirt as a way to connect to their culture.
Heading down to the bowels of Te Papa, through a stream of what seem like endless hallways I’m taken to a room to meet Claire Regnault, one of Te Papa’s curators, and Sonya Withers, an intern who traveled to Hawaii last year as part of a research trip on the Aloha shirt.
Donning rubber gloves, Sonya and Claire slip covers off a range of shirts. There are a variety of styles from long sleeves to short and even a hooded Hawaiian shirt.
In total the team collected 16 items with the addition of a onesie.
“The Aloha shirt sums up the spirit of Hawaii,” says Claire.
Through the Aloha shirt, Hawaiians have been able to express their values and cultural ties and Te Papa were interested in how that culture has been represented and also misrepresented.
The Aloha shirt has a rich and complex history, according to Claire who says people aren’t sure of the exact history of the garment, which has a number of stories attached to it.
“Some say the design elements came from the Palaka shirt which was worn as a work shirt on the plantations,” she says.
The Palaka shirt has origins that pre-date the Aloha shirt. The very first Aloha shirt was said to have been created by a Japanese immigrant, Chōtarō Miyamoto who began producing the shirts in Japanese silk fabrics.
But Te Papa’s area of interest lies primarily in the Aloha shirt as an expression of Hawaiian culture.
Each designer has a different take on the aloha shirt. Some have based their prints on particular species of protected native plant species, while other designers have looked to inspiration from family history, hula traditions or other aspects of Hawaiian culture.
Importantly, the designs have specific meanings and stories attached to them.
“They are just so rich and you can spend a lot of time looking at them and learning so much,” says Regnault.
Some of the earlier shirts collected on the trip are souvenir shirts depicting holidaymakers traveling on the SS Lurline, or illustrate more literal stories about Hawaii's past and its early settlement.
So what makes an Aloha shirt authentic? Regnault says they had a lot of conversations about this question during the trip.
Some believe that a true Aloha shirt needs to have been made in Hawaii, conceived or designed in Hawaii with a Hawaiian, Pacific or a tropical pattern.
“A good Hawaiian shirt has a perfectly matched pocket and perfectly matched placket so [there is] never a broken pattern,” she says.
This makes the garment more expensive to produce but Regnault says it also shows their commitment to the design process and the culture.
Others have another view on the Aloha shirt - that it can only be called an Aloha shirt once it’s been worn.
But Aloha shirts today aren’t all boxy and short-sleeved. They come in a variety of styles and designers also include womenswear.
Sonya Withers, who interned with Te Papa for the research trip, cites Manaola as a designer who has transformed the way people view the Aloha shirt. The team met him on his return from New York Fashion Week.
The cut of Manaola’s garments are fresh and contemporary and sit outside the realm of what one might expect when thinking of the traditional Aloha shirt. Manaola produces high end pieces and even creates suit jackets. His prints are refined, and it’s easy to imagine them being worn in any major city as fashion garments.
“He’s modernising it and the print is more of the focus with the fashion part being sort of like the vessel that’s carrying the print and the message,” she says.
Listen to the podcast to find out more and catch up on previous episodes that you've missed.