A French reporter contacted me last year. She was looking into whether Aloha Fridays in Hawaii led to Casual Fridays on the mainland and around the world. I had never thought about it, and I decided to look into it further.
Why don’t we start back in 1820, when Protestant missionaries arrived on our shores? They brought conservative dress to casually attired Native Hawaiians. For the next 140 years, coats and ties were standard business attire, despite Hawaii’s warm tropical climate.
A breakthrough came during the mid-1920s at Punahou School, Honolulu Advertiser columnist Lorna Arlen wrote in 1937. A group of boys took kimono material to a tailor and had it sewn into colorful shirts.
Sports writer Red McQueen said the University of Hawaii football team wore something akin to aloha shirts on a mainland trip in 1925.
THE FAD caught on, and around 1935-36, Musa-shiya Shoten and King-Smith Clothiers were selling them commercially.
“You might say it was a product of the Depression,” King-Smith Clothiers’ Ellery Chun said. “I thought the shop needed something that would sell well, so I thought I would try a colorful shirt indicative of Hawaii.”
He trademarked the name “Aloha shirts” and sold them for $1 each.
Chun had graduated from Punahou in 1927 and Yale in 1931. He remembered some “trendy Punahou students” had worn “flowery style” shirts when he attended in the late 1920s.
Soon many clothing companies were selling Hawaii print shirts for men and women. Surfers, young people and visiting Hollywood celebrities often could be seen wearing them.
Heiress Doris Duke was frequently seen wearing slacks and an aloha shirt in the daytime and a holoku at night.
By 1937 they began appearing in mainland stores.
Aloha shirts were worn by islanders staffing the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.
In the 1950s former President Harry Truman was photographed in an aloha shirt on the cover of Life magazine. Elvis Presley wore one on the cover of the record “Blue Hawaii.”
The Hawaii Fashion Guild and Aloha Week committee got together in 1965 and promoted a revolutionary idea: Every summer Friday from Kamehameha Day in June through Aloha Week in October would be “Aloha Friday,” and tropical print shirts and muumuu could be worn to work.
They wanted to promote locally made clothes, versus mainland-made coats and ties.
It took a while to catch on, but by 1967 it was expanded to year-round. “Every Friday is Aloha Friday,” said Gov. John Burns and Mayor Neal Blaisdell. The idea “has proven universally popular among residents and visitors alike,” Blaisdell said.
Newspapers across the country reported on this Hawaii “parade of color” fashion trend. Local kids at mainland colleges held luau sporting aloha wear.
Trader Joe’s store employees in California adopted aloha shirts “because we’re traders on the culinary seas, searching the world over for cool items to bring home to our customers,” they said.
A 1967 Honolulu Advertiser letter to the editor questioned why it was confined to Fridays. We’re in the tropics, not New York, the writer said.
Two years later, in 1969, the Chamber of Commerce voted to expand Aloha Friday to five days a week from June to October, calling it an “Aloha Summer.”
The song “It’s Aloha Friday,” written by Paul Natto and Kimo Kahoano, came out in 1970. By 1999 it had been played on over 1,800 mainland radio stations on Fridays.
In the 1980s Casual Fridays took hold on the mainland, starting with technology companies.
Hewlett-Packard was one of the first, calling them “Blue Sky Days.” Employees were encouraged to open their minds to new concepts and inventions.
These casual-dress days were well received by employees, and it spread throughout Silicon Valley.
Researchers studied the new trend and said it increased productivity. Comfortable employees were going to work better. It was a cost-free way to engender employee goodwill and loyalty.
One group pushed for “Aloha Friday in Florida,” saying ”it’s time to relax our dress” and wear clothes that “cater to our climate.”
On the mainland the style was called Casual Friday, dress-down days, business casual, office casual, dressy casual or corporate casual.
I think the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s played a role as well.
Remember “laid back,” “let it all hang out” and “do your own thing”?
The counterculture was the ultimate casual movement, and by the 1980s baby boomers were taking over management positions and were less “uptight” than their predecessors.
The casual Friday trend was spreading over the workplaces of America. The discussion shifted to what was permissible or not. Some retailers offered free presentations and videos on appropriate casual business wear.
Dockers practically launched its brand by sending out a “Guide to Casual Businesswear” to 25,000 human resource directors in 1992.
Permissible attire included Dockers, Claiborne or Reunion labels; navy blazers over denim or polo shirts; trousers with a fly front; corduroy pants; brushed twill; richly textured fabrics; lightweight vests; sweaters; cardigans; chinos; clean jeans; chambray shirts; sporty shoes; and loafers.
What wasn’t OK were sweatpants; nylon windbreakers; shorts; sandals; running, biking, hiking or golf wear; sundresses; bare shoulders; or leggings.
Wear what your clients are wearing, some companies said. Use your own discretion but be presentable. In other words, you don’t have to dress formally to look sharp.
A survey in 2000 showed 90% of U.S. workers dressed down once a week. The trend is becoming the norm rather than the exception, it said.
It was seen as a morale booster. Casual clothes eliminate barriers between managers and hourly workers, some researchers said. It makes people more approachable. It puts people at ease.
“A wind of change is blowing through the halls of corporate America,” the Indiana Gazette wrote. Business is about productivity, creativity and competition — and casual and comfortable clothes help companies compete, it said.
The trend is spreading around the world and beyond Fridays. In 2005, to cut carbon emissions, Japan instituted a summer “Cool Biz Campaign,” asking that office thermostats be set above 82 degrees. Casual attire was encouraged. Japan says it helped reduce carbon emissions by 2.2 million tons annually.
When the G8 Summit took place in 2013, the dress code for world leaders was “smart-casual.” Beginning in 2017, England’s House of Commons no longer required ties for members of Parliament.
So, did Aloha Friday encourage and evolve into Casual Friday on the mainland?
Malie Moran, Attila Pohlmann and Andrew Reilly, in their 2014 book “Honolulu Street Style,” said that “Casual Friday had its origin from Hawaii’s Aloha Friday, which slowly spread east to California, continuing around the globe until the 1990s when it became known as Casual Friday.”
“The whole idea of casual Friday is really a Hawaiian invention,” said Linda Arthur, author of “Aloha Attire: Hawaiian Dress in the Twentieth Century.”
Aloha shirts today can be found all over the mainland, and even the shaka sign is well known.
Now, if we could only spread the aloha spirit in the same way …
Have a question or suggestion? Contact Bob Sigall, author of the five “The Companies We Keep” books, at Sigall@Yahoo.com.