Hawaiian shirts are returning – but ‘people want to think twice’, says expert

Priya Elan
·2 min read

The return of the Hawaiian shirt has been celebrated in the style press, as celebrities including Bill Murray, Rihanna and Sophie Turner have been seen to wear them.

But according to Zara Anishanslin, a fellow at the Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton, people should think twice before wearing the garments.

“They are the fashion equivalent of a plantation wedding,” said Anishanslin. “They could be seen as fashionable embodiments of the history of American colonization, imperialism and racism against Hawaii’s indigenous inhabitants. People might want to think twice about whether the look is worth the weight of its associative past.”

Hawaiian shirts have also been co-opted by the “Boogaloo” movement, white supremacists who advocate war against the federal government.

Initially made from leftover cloth intended for kimonos, the shirts were popularised by American veterans of the second world war. Soon Japanese motifs were replaced by Hawaiian ones and a cultural touchstone was born.

About five years ago, Hawaiian shirts became part of the “dadcore” trend. Then the “Boogaloo” movement chose to combine them with camouflage trousers, body armour and weapons.

“It might not be an aesthetically pleasing combination but it’s a smart one, in terms of picking out your fellow members of the group in the crowd,” Anishanslin said.

Armed ‘Boogaloo Bois’ near the Virginia state capitol on 18 January.
Armed ‘Boogaloo Bois’ near the Virginia state capitol on 18 January. Photograph: Samuel Corum/EPA

Last year, Dr Reece Jones of the University of Hawaii wrote about how the brightly coloured shirts came to symbolise something much darker.

“I know this seems like a joke and easy to dismiss,” he wrote, “but that is part of [the Boogaloo Bois’] strategy, to lure in young men and downplay what they are talking about. It is deadly serious. These men are preparing for a civil war.”

Anishanslin thinks the fashion industry needs to think about how such shirts have been co-opted.

“I do think fashion houses and individual designers and sellers should speak out about people like the Boogaloo Boys using fashion for politics that encourage violence or racism,” she said.

Anishanslin also believes celebrities such as Cara Delevigne and Justin Bieber who have recently worn Hawaiian shirts have a chance to help to reclaim them.

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“Why not design Hawaiian shirts that use anti-gun, anti-racist, pro-peace iconography and slogans?” she said. “Why not, perhaps importantly, hire indigenous designers to create them?”