The mayor of Honolulu has no less than 60 aloha shirts in his closet, and possibly as many as 80.
He wears them all the time, too, especially the Sig Zane designs, preferably the pullover type with a stand-up, button-down collar.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell says he wears the shirts to not only support local business and, in Zane’s case, a fellow Hilo boy, but also because the designs are symbolic and evoke the islands.
“His shirts tell a story,” said Caldwell, who is particularly fond of native plant designs such as uluwehi and images that recall his childhood days fishing at South Point.
The shirts also last a long time, says the mayor, who still has the first Sig Zane he bought decades ago. And he wears aloha shirts every election for good luck.
In a profession defined on the mainland by red power ties in formal settings (think Donald Trump), Oxford shirts in more casual gatherings like the campaign trail (think Barack Obama), or chambray work shirts for chopping wood or clearing brush back at the Western White House (think Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush), the attire of preference for Hawaii politicians is the aloha shirt.
In fact, to not wear an aloha shirt in Hawaii would make a politician stand out in ways that might not serve him well (i.e., re-election).
“It’s my everyday wear, if I can do it,” says former Hawaii Gov. John Waihee, who also prefers to pair the shirts with jeans. “I have short sleeve and long sleeve. I am one of those guys who has a ton of them, mostly Sig Zane and Hawaiian Force.”
“Old habits die hard,” said Lt. Gov. Doug Chin, who has worn Reyn Spooner for almost 30 years.
Except for court appearances, the former attorney general says he has seen aloha wear embraced and celebrated in multiple settings around the islands.
“It’s my everyday wear, if I can do it.” — Former Hawaii Gov. John Waihee
I surveyed more than a dozen top Hawaii leaders to learn their sartorial flare and to sound out their fashion anecdotes and bespoken tips.
Note: I reached out only to men. If this column proves a hit with readers, I might venture into calling women leaders. But, while I own about a dozen aloha shirts myself, I have no muumuu, let alone Anne Namba.
First, some historical context.
The origins of the aloha shirt (never the “Hawaiian” shirt) are disputed, but one report traces them to a “confluence of cultural influences.” It includes Western sailor shirts, Japanese fabric used for kimono, Japanese and Chinese tailors who immigrated as plantation field workers and Filipino barong Tagalog gossamer dress shirts.
A New York Times obituary in 2000 credited Ellery Chun, “who might not have exactly invented the Hawaiian shirt but who surely gave it a powerful push toward prominence.” Chun was a Native Hawaiian who turned a Chinese dry goods shop on North King Street in Honolulu into a clothier that mass produced aloha shirts.
Aloha shirts were popularized via Western popular culture, including Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Cliff wearing the shirts in “From Here to Eternity,” Elvis Presley in “Blue Hawaii” and Tom Selleck in “Magnum, P.I.”
“Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower equated them with weekends,” the Times wrote.
Here at home, Aloha Friday is tradition. The late U.S. Rep. Mark Takai tried to persuade U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan to allow the custom to be honored in Congress.
“As part of a longstanding rule, formal attire is required in Congress,” The Hill reported.
No wonder D.C. is so messed up.
Ed Case, the former congressman who is running this year to return to Washington, D.C., bought his first Sig Zane in 2001. That’s when Case pulled papers to run for governor, a race that he lost in 2002 but which he still associates with the shirts he wore during the campaign.
Also a Hilo native, Case credits Zane with pioneering a style that has been widely imitated.
“I still have a number in my closet,” said Case, who wore aloha shirts from Quiksilver’s Waterman Collection when he worked for Outrigger Resorts for the past five years.
“The shirts have kind of a water and beach orientation and Waikiki is more informal than downtown. I can’t get rid of any of them. Each one has a history to it.”
Another favored brand for Case: Nake’u Awai, a Kalihi-based designer.
“I like his personality, and his design has an authenticity,” he said. “He is an artist, and his designs are used in the Merrie Monarch.”
Bernard Carvalho Jr., mayor of Kauai, has his aloha shirts custom designed by Linda Akutagawa.
“Every shirt is made specifically for me,” he says, adding that his wife Gina selects the material. “I’m 6-foot, 4-inches, 330 pounds and proud of it. I’m in the big boys club. Auntie Linda can make a shirt in just one or two days.”
Carvalho wears a wiliwili lei wherever he goes while in his aloha shirts.
“It came from my grandmother, and it is part of representing and staying connected with aloha,” he said. “I guess for me it is part of who I am — a Hawaiian, an aloha leader, someone who works to protect the people.”
Aloha shirts are not for every occasion. Most pols I spoke with said they would never wear one in a courtroom, nor in mainland business or government settings.
(One exception, said Caldwell, are pau hanas, as at U.S. Conference of Mayor meetings.)
Carvalho and Waihee wear their shirts untucked, while Case prefers tucked. Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, however, prefers untucked, although he used to tuck often when he was in office and about 30 pounds slimmer.
“This happened to me a couple of times,” he said. “When I was governor, when I had to go to one function and then another, my staff did not tell me what the attire was. So, I walked into this function and everybody had a sports coat on or business suits. It was a damn embarrassment. ‘Here comes Cayetano wearing an aloha shirt.’”
What about a blazer or sport coat with an aloha shirt?
Caldwell and Case say “no way,” as it detracts from the print, although Case cops to having worn a blazer over an aloha shirt for a recent candidates debate.
Former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona doesn’t like coats either.
“I may have done it once or twice, probably in a situation where a coat was required, but I just don’t think a coat with an aloha shirt is appropriate,” he said. “People think it makes them more business-like, I guess.”
Aiona, who prefers Rix, considers tucked shirts appropriate for more formal occasions versus untucked for more casual. And he says he would never wear one to the beach.
“That’s a shorts, T-shirt and slippers thing,” he says.
Carvalho will not wear aloha wear when he goes out in the field, as he did in recent days with all the flooding on Kauai. That calls for work boots and a Nike pullover.
But Caldwell says he likes to wear palaka print shirts on weekends, as he did to emergency management meetings last weekend over Hurricane Lane. The mayor equates palaka, which has origins in the Hawaii plantation period, to a working man’s shirt.
But palaka, Caldwell says, is not an aloha shirt. Case thinks otherwise, but we will save that debate for another day.
Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie notes that different designers are popular at different times. For him, a major figure was Alfred Shaheen, a textile industrialist who many credit for popularizing aloha shirts.
When Abercrombie was governor, his administration actively promoted the aloha wear industry. And he has a favorite shirt — a blue Reyn Spooner with a pink floral pattern that he bought back in the 1970s when he was in the state Legislature.
“That was the shirt I was wearing when I did analysis of election night,” said Abercrombie, referring to his appearance on Hawaii News Now the night of the Aug. 11 primary. “It’s my good luck shirt.”
The current governor, David Ige, likes Sig Zane, Reyn Spooner, Rix and Manaola. He won’t wear one to a formal function or business event, but sometimes he will don a jacket for what is known as “business aloha attire,” meaning it falls somewhere between a casual and a formal event.
I asked the governor if he had any dry cleaning tips.
“Al Phillips Ala Moana does same-day dry cleaning,” Ige advised via email. “In by 9, out by 5.”
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