THE THREAD OF fashion designer Penelope Tinitali’s life is sewing. Her mother was a seamstress, and her grandmother was a seamstress, as were all of her aunties. It’s what brought her back to her culture, and where she found her passion.

After moving from Samoa to the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s, Tinitali’s mother ran a clothing store in Tacoma, making and selling traditional Polynesian clothing, like tropical shirts (Aloha shirts) and mu’umu’us (patterned women’s dresses), and even hosting fashion shows. 

“We grew up with fashion,” says Tinitali. “My mom lost the business, so we forgot about the culture.”

The Aloha shirt provides significance — and freedom

As Tinitali learned how to sew like her aunts and mother before her, she also began researching her culture, and it brought her to tears realizing how much she had grown disconnected from it. 

Now, Tinitali runs her own custom fashion design company, the newly rebranded Teine Teuteu, which had been called Oh Sew Islander. She is director of the annual Samoan fashion show at the Asian Pacific Cultural Center in Tacoma. She and her sister Falefitu Tinitali, who began sewing and designing after she saw her sister’s passion for it, presented their own fashion lines in this year’s show. 

The Tinitali sisters aren’t the only ones using fashion to reconnect to and highlight their Polynesian culture.

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“Ever since I came out of my shell and taught myself to sew, every young Polynesian artist is teaching themself how to sew and reaching out to join this fashion show and bring our culture to the fore,” says Penelope. 

HER JOURNEY TO cultural reclamation through fashion mirrors the complex history and evolution of what is easily the most widely recognized garment in Polynesian fashion: the Aloha shirt.

From a luxury item created by a blend of Polynesian cultures, to a global phenomenon sported by the likes of Elvis Presley, to a mass-manufactured “Dad shirt,” the Aloha shirt, with its bright colors and bold patterns, has enraptured, awed and raised the eyebrows of designers, fashionistas and everyday people looking for a piece of paradise since the shirts first hit the scene in the 1920s.  

In recent years, Aloha shirts have made a comeback in new and interesting ways — from high-end fashion designers such as Prada releasing Aloha shirt lines to incidentally becoming the assumed uniform of a far-right extremist group in 2020. 

More interesting is how Polynesians are reclaiming the Aloha shirt as their own. After decades of tourists, celebrities and non-Polynesian people driving the market narrative of the Aloha shirt as the garb of a mythical island paradise, Polynesian artists now are starting their own fashion lines focused on Indigenous patterns and returning their Aloha shirts to the days of finer materials and craftsmanship. 

Some of those reclamation efforts are happening right here in Washington, which boasts the third-largest population of Pacific Islanders in the United States. Hawaiian students at Washington state colleges proudly sport the garments to show off their heritage and stave off homesickness. Local Polynesian fashion designers, such as Penelope Tinitali, aim to ride the wave of renewed interest in the shirt to show off lesser-known motifs of Polynesian fashion by blending them with modern styles and their own experiences living on the mainland.

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As a garment originally created by the cooperative efforts of the communities and diverse cultures of the Polynesian islands, the Aloha shirt is the perfect example of such cross-cultural conversation. 

LONG BEFORE Linda Arthur Bradley was a professor of apparel studies at the University of Hawai’i and Washington State University, she was a 10-year-old Catholic schoolgirl curious about what the nuns at her school wore under their habits. 

“I thought, ‘If their outside clothes are so funky, their underwear have got to be weirder,’ ” she says.

So, one day, when the nuns weren’t watching, she sneaked into the laundry room to find out, only to be disappointed when she saw that their undergarments were the same as anyone else’s.

“It was my first research project,” she says, laughing.

Growing up surrounded by Amish communities and taught by those nuns at school, Bradley was surrounded by compelling examples of cultural dress. She became interested in the intersections of culture and clothing.

Her future research projects turned out to be far more fruitful. Bradley’s interests eventually took her to Hawai’i, where she found a lack of books about Hawaiian clothing. So she set out to write one.

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“I’ve always been fascinated by how culture uses clothing to imbue values and set identity,” she says. 

In the Aloha shirt, Bradley found a fascinating blending of the cultures that make up Hawaiian society.

“The story of the Aloha shirt [is] a conglomeration of styles that came from five cultural origins,” says Bradley. 

The shape of the shirt was a Western style, she says, while the original fabrics came from Japanese kimono cloth, and the prints were Hawaiian or Polynesian. Until the 1940s, the sewing was done in shops run by Chinese tailors, and the trend of wearing the shirt outside the pants (not tucked in) was a Filipino style. 

The shirt’s lightweight nature and breezy style were inspired by the humid tropical environment and the clothes of workers who spent hours laboring under the sun on pineapple and sugar plantations. 

Though the shirt’s patterns were drawn from Japanese influences at the time, bright colors and emphatic patterns long have been a fixture of Polynesian fashion, a reflection of the colorful natural environment.  

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“Polynesia is all about integrating design ideas from every place else. Amalgamation is the thing everywhere,” says Bradley. “What we know as the Aloha shirt is all over Polynesia, and each group has a different take on it, but it’s the same basic shape, and the prints vary quite a bit, but it’s cultural diffusion is what it is.”

IRONICALLY, THE INITIAL result of this weaving together of cultures was a brightly colored, boldly patterned shirt that was worn mostly by mainland Americans looking for an escape. 

In the decades following World War I, Westerners and veterans in Hawai’i became enamored with the colors and prints of the Aloha shirt. Originally a luxury item, the shirts were made popular outside of Hawai’i by celebrities such as U.S. Olympic swimmer and surfer Duke Kahanamoku, Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby (born in Tacoma, by the way) and wealthy vacationers.

For those mired in the hardship of the Great Depression, the Aloha shirt was a symbol of wealth and what many imagined to be a carefree utopian life in the Polynesian islands.

“After the war, they were like a vacation that you could wear,” says Dale Hope, Aloha shirt maker, historian and curator of “The Art of the Aloha Shirt” exhibit, which is currently on view at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. 

“It’s a bit of a daydream in a piece of fabric. Of course, you do have to recognize that that daydream may not be the reality of the people living on the island, but for a lot of folks, perhaps even the people who were working on those shirts, it did represent an escape from the everyday,” says Gwen Whiting, lead exhibitions curator at the museum, who contributed some of the explanatory content on “cultural appropriation” to the exhibit. 

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“When people buy the clothes, they think they’re buying an identity that doesn’t necessarily exist,” she says.

Nonetheless, the popularity of that daydream effectively launched the textile industry in Hawai’i, as manufacturers followed the money and began producing shirts using cheaper materials.

Beyond the promise of paradise, the Aloha shirt became a symbol of living more freely and shirking the strictures of more rigid attire. 

“The idea of wearing a men’s shirt untucked was revolutionary,” says Bradley.

While the island life “daydream” might not have won over Hawaiians, Bradley points out that some Hawaiians eventually found interest in Aloha shirts.  

“It took a long time for locals to start wearing them,” she says.

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Locals tended to wear shirts with subtler prints and colors and preferred wearing reverse-print shirts whose prints appeared faded. The faded look was a sort of badge of honor, says Bradley, a symbol that they were from Hawai’i rather than a tourist, at least until the end of the 20th century. Now, many men in white-collar jobs wear Aloha shirts of all kinds daily.

Of course, life in Hawai’i and throughout Polynesia is not all luaus and beachside daydreaming. 

Still, the creation of the shirts themselves through the collaboration of several cultural communities did represent the diverse cultural landscape of Hawai’i and Polynesia. Not to mention, the popularity of these colorful garments put Polynesian fashion on the map. 

TODAY, DALE HOPE is an Aloha shirt enthusiast and historian, so it comes as no surprise that he grew up playing in his father’s garment factory in Hawai’i as a kid.

Although Aloha shirts were once expensive and primarily worn by non-Hawaiians, they had become ubiquitous even among locals when Hope was growing up. He and other local kids “wouldn’t even think about wearing anything but an Aloha shirt in school,” he says. “That’s all we wore.”

Hope says artists such as John “Keoni” Meigs, who was designing shirts in Hawai’i from 1938 to 1951, created more specifically Hawaiian patterns for the shirts, featuring floral and tribal patterns and scenes from daily Hawaiian life, which inspired more locals to wear them. 

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“Keoni just identified and created his prints with imagery that bespoke life in the Hawaiian islands, before, we like to say, ‘concrete got poured into its veins’ and Honolulu became Miami,” says Hope. “When the coconut trees were as tall as the hotels, when there were more wa’a, wooden outrigger canoes, than hotels, Hawai’i was really a charming place, and Keoni was able to capture that charm in a very whimsical way that both visitors and locals wanted to wear his prints because they identified with a place, a culture and a lifestyle that everyone was living vibrantly. He really captured the island spirit. 

“It was kind of like a badge of honor wearing something that showed pride in your island’s way of life.”

For non-Hawaiians who admired the garment for its artistry, shirts created by Meigs and others trying to capture authentic Hawai’i are a treasure.

“It’s almost like wearing a T-shirt that says, ‘I was here,’ ” says David Bader, a former art teacher and a Tacoma-based Aloha shirt designer and collector who became enamored with the shirts after his grandmother bought him one when he was just 2 years old. He began collecting Aloha shirts when he owned a vintage clothing store in the 1970s and the romance with the shirts was alive and well. He now designs his own shirts from textiles found while forming his collection, and as Polynesian designers begin to infuse more Indigenous designs into their styles, he began looking for textiles to honor that.

“That’s part of me being a student of the style,” says Bader.

BUT NOTHING LASTS forever, and with the 1990s came a new era of Aloha shirts, ones with gaudy prints that exoticized island life or perpetuated a “paradise” motif — shirts featuring absurd images of huts or tiki torches or sexualized images of women in hula skirts — a shift that heralded the end of the heyday of the Aloha shirt. They became largely associated with clueless tourists and corny suburban dads, and soon were relegated to the backs of closets and thrift store racks. 

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To walk through Bader’s collection of some 500 shirts, you see the evolution of the Aloha shirt over the decades — from carefully tailored shirts with Japanese motifs such as lotus flowers and Japanese geography, and locally sourced materials, to an influx of prints more representative of Hawai’i and Polynesia, and then to prints that he says are “sort of an appropriated idea of what Hawai’i is.”

“There are some [shirts] that include [Hawaiian] patterns and some made by people who had never really been there,” Bader says. “I’m not Native Hawaiian, and I don’t pretend to know what they think about them, but I can understand someone taking something from my culture and pretending it’s this, but it really doesn’t represent anything that’s historically accurate.

“If you call it an Aloha shirt and it has little huts on it or stuff that doesn’t really look like the way people lived before the white people came, it’s problematic.”

Shortly after the 1990s, the era of Aloha shirts that glaringly misrepresented Hawaiian culture, there was a sharp drop in the popularity of the shirts. Textile factories in Hawai’i declined over the next few decades, and Aloha shirts became a representation of strangeness, occasionally turning up on the big screen to mark the quirkiness of characters such as Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura or Johnny Depp’s Raoul Duke in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Hope blames both the degradation of the shirt and its decline in popularity on the loss of culture more generally in Hawai’i.

“[Non-Hawaiians] today call them luau shirts or party shirts, and they wear them for barbecues, and they don’t have the distinction that they had 30 or 40 or 50 years ago,” says Hope. In Hawai’i, “Everything got modern, and we started losing our charm, and more and more mainland ways of living and lifestyle came into our island, and along with that came more sophisticated dress, and we started losing our culture with our dress.”

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But that’s not the end of the story. 

GAIL STRINGER, OWNER of the Hawaiian General Store in Wallingford, says she’s never really seen Aloha shirts wane in popularity at her store over the past 25 years. 

“It is timeless,” says Stringer. “There are always those people for whom that’s how they live their life. Their life is a big Aloha shirt. They don’t want to wear shirts that are just one color. They don’t want to fit the norm … We get a lot of teachers, actually, especially middle school teachers.”

Still, she says, she and her customers do discern between types of Aloha shirts. She keeps hers on two racks in the store. On one rack are higher-end shirts that are custom-designed and made with quality materials. These, she says, usually attract her Polynesian customers and people who are going to the islands for business. 

The other rack, in the back of the store, she calls her “e kala mai” or “Pardon me” rack. It holds the shirts made of cheaper materials and designs that aren’t exactly Hawaiian or Polynesian. While Stringer steers clear of anything that is overtly offensive, most of these shirts, she says, don’t really reflect Hawaiian culture. These tend to attract partygoers looking for something loud to wear. The subtler floral patterns made with cheaper materials tend to draw Polynesian families hoping to deck out the family in matching outfits for weddings or special events. 

THOUGH CUSTOMERS continue to look to both ends of the spectrum for Aloha shirts, Polynesian designers are increasingly interested in the Aloha shirt’s origins as emblems of Polynesian cultural diversity. 

Aloha shirts are finding new life among Hawaiian designers, such as Sig Zane and Manaola Yap, who are interested in infusing them with Indigenous prints and patterns drawn from the islands, and as garments designed intentionally and sewn with fine materials.

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A new generation of Polynesians living on the mainland is reaching beyond the Aloha shirt and using traditional cultural fashion to reconnect to their own cultures, while adapting the traditional clothes to modern styles and to their multifaceted identities.

Penelope Tinitali’s fashion line is characterized by bold Samoan prints, in rich colors and flowing materials, but the cuts and styles are modern and bear the influence of her upbringing here in the Pacific Northwest.

For her Rebel Warrior line, she printed tribal designs meaning “power, respect and honor” on the gowns using a traditional Samoan method of printing with a handmade ‘upeti, a relief pattern carved into wood.

This mixing of modern and traditional, mainland and Polynesian, is one of the things the Tinitali sisters want to see more of in their fashion show.

“We look for designers who are innovative, who can bring our culture and mix it in with urban, modern styles,” says Falefitu Tinitali. “We see it nowadays — our traditional wear being mixed in with urban wear — and it’s different.” 

That kind of adaptation, she says, is a sign of a rejuvenation and revived interest in Polynesian culture and fashion. 

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“Designers and seamstresses are usually older ladies, but now that younger ones are interested as well, it’s nice to see young designers in this small community come together and be interested in the fashion aspect of the whole culture,” she says. “You see it’s Americanized now, but we’re [also] trying to bring it back to our culture.”

Penelope Tinitali’s goal is to make the Samoan Fashion Show at APCC so prominent that she can bring it to Samoa. 

When she’s not running the show or working on her own designs, Penelope sews custom clothing for local Polynesian clients, whom she says tend to be most interested in her custom Aloha shirts and mu’umu’us, everyday wear they can use to show off their pride in their heritage. 

“Being in America,” she says, “I want to keep the culture alive through fashion.”