The cyclical nature of fashion is well-documented, and a garment that is currently seeing itself in a particularly odd upswing of this cycle is the Aloha shirt—most notably, due to its association with the Boogaloo movement, a loosely organized fringe political movement known for its pro-gun and anti-government sentiment, and for threatening to escalate violent conflict in the hopes of sparking a "civil war."
Though its precise origins are a subject of debate, the popularization of the modern Aloha shirt with tropical-themed patterns can be traced back to Ellery Chun, a native Hawaiian and clothier who died in 2000. According to the New York Times, when he began mass-producing the shirts in 1931, he gave them the "aloha" name, hoping to sell them to tourists as keepsakes and to locals as a special occasion garment.
Commonly referred to as the "Hawaiian shirt" outside Hawaii, the Aloha shirt's influence is now global, with high-end fashion and big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target offering their takes on the style. Though its popularity on the mainland has ebbed and flowed over the decades—from its connection to the creation of Casual Friday in 1962, to the Montagues donning Hawaiian shirts in Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in 1996— its resurgence in 2020 is a bit more controversial.
The Boogaloo movement has already been linked to real-life violence. Steven Carrillo, an active duty Air Force staff sergeant, is awaiting his next court hearing for murder and attempted murder, among other charges, after a shooting at an Oakland courthouse in May and a separate shooting in Santa Cruz County in June. After the Santa Cruz incident, which left one sheriff’s deputy dead and another injured, Carrillo reportedly wrote the word "Boog" in blood on the hood of a carjacked Camry. Inside the van from the Oakland shooting, which ended in the death of a federal officer, police found "a ballistic vest with a patch featuring a Hawaiian-style print and an igloo."
As such, 2020 has been a difficult time for the Aloha shirt industry. Amid the media frenzy surrounding the shirt's resurgence, manufacturers and designers are suddenly finding themselves in the position of having to explain that they are not involved with a movement that yearns for violence and murder—and to remind the public of the shirt’s historical origins as an emblem of peace and harmony.
On June 29, the Times published a story about Boogaloo extremists and their use of Hawaiian shirts. In passing, the piece mentions Hawaii resident and noted Aloha shirt scholar Dale Hope, author of The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands, claiming that he was an "authority" on Hawaiian shirts and that he "wrote about its 'humorous, garish or tacky' associations."
In an interview with VICE, Hope, who said he was not contacted by the Times before the article's publication, was eager to make his feelings on the Aloha shirt clear—along with the values it incarnates. "I love Aloha shirts more than I love just about anything in the world," he said. Referring to his quote on the shirt's "tacky associations" in the Times, he said those words "describe the antithesis of the Aloha shirt," and felt they were taken out of context.
"The meaning of Aloha is an essence of being, love, peace, compassion, and a mutual understanding of respect," he said. "Aloha means living in harmony with the people and land around you, with mercy, sympathy, grace, and kindness. And that's what these shirts represent." Hope described the garment as evoking a feeling, one that "puts a skip in your step" and "makes your heart smile."
Hope said the news of the Boogaloo movement's fondness for floral prints took him by surprise, and that he believed that living in Hawaii had sheltered him from hearing about the phenomenon earlier. Still, he said he couldn't help but notice the poor quality of the shirts worn by members of the Boogaloo movement, and said he'd "have to be halfway blind that they certainly aren't Hawaii's best representation of a Hawaiian shirt."
"Many of them are very bottom-of-the-barrel, very cheap interpretations of what an Aloha shirt or Hawaiian shirt looks like," Hope explained. "I guess they're called Hawaiian shirts. But they're poser Hawaiian shirts."
Hope currently works for a premium clothing company called Western Aloha, which makes its namesake shirts as well as Palaka shirts (or check-patterned "work shirts"), many of which are manufactured in a factory in El Paso, Texas.
"Before seeing the pictures, the only person I knew of who carried a gun while wearing an Aloha shirt was Magnum PI," said Paul Sullivan, the company's founder and CEO, though he added that “the Hawaii Five-O guys wear them sometimes too." Like Hope, he stressed that the shirt's ethos in the context of Hawaiian culture couldn't be farther away from that of the Boogaloo movement.
"The Aloha shirt has a pretty amazing history of people and cultures blending together in a very beautiful but very remote place where people need to depend on each other, so to the extent it's being deployed for something other than that, that just seems like trolling to me," Sullivan said.
Pagong Kyoto, a Japan-based manufacturer that makes ornate and intricate Aloha shirts with silk dyed using a technique used for dying kimonos. They retail for over $300 each, and the company counts Yoko Ono as a customer. When contacted by VICE, a spokesperson for the brand said they'd not heard of the Boogaloo movement. They had noticed an increase in sales from America, but did not know if it was connected to this movement.
The representative noted that this wasn't the first time they'd noticed a controversial community co-opting the shirt's loud colors and conspicuous prints as a display of rebelliousness. They pointed to previous examples in Japan of Yakuza wearing bold-patterned shirts, seemingly unaware of the Hawaiian history behind them. "We were not too surprised to see the Boogaloo movement wanting to ‘stand out’ in this way too," they said.
Pagong Kyoto also emphasized the shirt’s cultural origins. "We have only the highest respect for Hawaii, and the Aloha shirt being the embodiment of everything good. It’s more than just a shirt. For us, it’s love, and respect for a way to live." They noted the fabric used for some of the first Aloha shirts came from Japanese immigrants in Honolulu. In his history of the aloha shirt, Dale Hope also notes the importance of Musa-Shiya Shoten, a man who sold custom Aloha shirts in 1935 for "95 cents and up" in Honolulu.
Vincent Hui is an operations manager at Avanti Fashion Inc., a family-owned retailer that has been selling Aloha shirts and other clothing in Hawaii since 1991. He said he had also not heard of the Boogaloo movement until someone sent him an article about the movement's embrace of Hawaiian shirts. He noted Avanti Fashion Inc. has no affiliations with this movement, and says the sudden "connection" feels "out of left field."
"It's an unfortunate thing to have happened, especially since the Aloha shirt has good meaning behind it," Hui said." Unfortunately, there are things like this movement that are out of our control." He said Avanti has actually experienced a slight decline in sales in the recent months, though that could be due to other factors like the coronavirus.
It remains to be seen how the Boogaloo movement will impact the Aloha shirt business in the long term, but Hope is confident that the shirt's original meaning is the one that will endure. He reminds VICE of a line that he wrote in his book, one that feels a bit ironic given the events of this year: "If everybody wore an Aloha shirt, there'd be no wars."