Afew years ago, the only customers buying Hawaiian shirts at the Garment District were the “dad” types, says store manager Amy Gibson. Chances are Jimmy Buffett was about to play Fenway Park again.
But at the three-day Boston Calling music festival recently, a significant subset of the mostly college-aged crowd was wearing classic Hawaiian shirts — splashy prints of hibiscus and palm trees, the louder the better. The garment, officially known as the Aloha shirt — the casual, short-sleeve, button-down, straight-hem shirt with a typically big, bold floral print — has been enjoying a renaissance in recent years. It’s no longer your father’s Hawaiian shirt.
Or maybe it is, if you’re plucking it from the vintage rack at stores like the Garment District or Buffalo Exchange. For the past few years, says Gibson, her “alternative department store” — the long-running retail and resale warehouse near Kendall Square, which she has managed for seven years — has been buying and featuring more Hawaiian shirts, as young people (both men and women) look to express themselves with a traditionally outre fashion choice.
The comeback began a few years ago, when high-end designers such as Valentino and Prada put models in floral prints on runways. Now the trickle-down has reached off-price department stores such as Marshalls, which has dozens of Aloha-style shirts to choose from this season.
“This is kind of like the year of the melons,” says Glenn Trefethen, a manager in the men’s department at Nordstrom in the Northshore Mall in Peabody. Men’s clothing brands such as Bonobos have been veering from the classic Tommy Bahama-style print — the kind that looks like you’re carving a path through the jungle — to feature casual shirts with repeating rows of little pineapples, or flamingos, or lemon slices.
Do those actually count as Hawaiian shirts?
“When I see those, I just acknowledge that they were inspired by the Aloha shirt,” says self-made Hawaiian shirt historian Dale Hope, who’s as likely to be a purist as anyone. “That’s fine, and if it gets somebody’s heart to smile a little more than a solid or a checked or plaid shirt, then I think the world is a better place for it.”
Hope, who grew up and still lives in Honolulu, where the shirt originated around the 1930s, is the author of “The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands.” Published in 2000, the book was reissued in an expanded edition two years ago by Patagonia. Hope helped design the company’s Pataloha collection of short-sleeved shirts.
Though the old-fashioned Hawaiian shirt, once marketed as a “wearable postcard,” was not a big seller just a few years ago, Hope says, he’s not surprised by the revival.
“It’s so strong and powerful, it can go away for a while, but it always manages to find its way back. There are not too many other things like it that evoke a feeling about a special place, that convey so much.”
Trefethen, who is 26, thinks the shirt first took off among the college set a couple of years ago, when the tongue-in-cheek popularity of the “dad bod” became an Internet phenomenon. Currently wearing a Hawaiian shirt himself, he’s happy to make a few generalizations about the customers who’ve been buying them.
“They’re comfortable with themselves, willing to be the center of attention,” he says. “It’s kind of like wearing a bowtie — it’s a conversation starter.”
Of course, there are shoppers who still won’t get within a totem pole’s length of a Hawaiian shirt, Trefethen says. The style’s steady popularity with certain customers over the past few summer seasons “has a lot to do with the social media presence nowadays,” he speculates. “It’s like seeing a yellow car for the first time. You go, ‘Wow!’ But by the fifth or sixth time, you get used to it.”
A half-dozen or so years ago, while visiting vintage stores in the San Francisco Bay Area for a proposed documentary, Hope met two young men from Spain and their girlfriends. They were trying on old Hawaiian shirts at a dollar-a-pound store outside the city.
“They were having the time of their life, giggling and laughing,” says Hope. When he asked why, they replied, “‘Oh, if we we wear these, we’re just going to be happier. Instead of one beer, we might have three.’
“I think the shirt kind of subtly gives you more freedom to be yourself, and even have more fun,” he says. “It’s kind of like putting on a Santa Claus suit.”
Having been around the garment industry all his life, Hope has sometimes caught himself wondering whether these latest Aloha shirt enthusiasts know their history.
“Then I realize that all that stuff doesn’t even matter,” he says. When you’re wearing a Hawaiian shirt, what does?