The Aloha Shirt’s Strange Path to Uniform for Alt-right Radicals

Patterns of politicization.

One wouldn’t imagine much overlap between a David Beckham Maserati ad and the aesthetics of an alt-right political group that believes that the United States is on the verge of a second Civil War. Yet, the two intersect at a sartorial preference for the Hawaiian shirt.

Also known as the Aloha shirt, the printed, kitschy garment has a long history and a near-constant presence in the fashion cycle, hawked yearly by fast fashion retailers like H&M and Zara while also found on the racks at St. Laurent (where Becks acquired his) and Prada. It isn’t often that a single item of clothing can evoke both yachting in Saint-Tropez and a backyard gathering around the barbeque, but the Aloha shirt is at home in both places — it’s only at the kinds of protests that draw gun advocates and anti-immigration protesters where its cheery prints and tropical colours feel out of place. Yet there they are, playing a big role. But how?

The so called “alt-right” grabbed the 1984 film Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo starring Ice-T from the dustbin of cinematic history, using the film’s title as shorthand to advance the theory that a second American Civil War is imminent. In the way that things shift and warp on internet message boards, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo became Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo and “Boogaloo” became “big igloo” or “big luau.” From luau, we arrive at the Hawaiian shirt, donned by “boogaloo boys” at rallies, protests, and the storming of the U.S. capitol building last January.

The co-opting of clothing items and styles of dress is not new. Brands like Fred Perry, Doc Martens, New Balance, Burberry, and even the Gap and Zara have seen their products take on (sub)cultural significance in a way that was never intended —even in ways unflattering to the label. Docs, a utility wear brand designed for the working class, became cool when Pete Townsend of The Who ditched his flowing hippie robes for a boiler suit and a pair of 1460s.

The boots then became part of a signature look for England’s skinhead working class subculture in the 1960s— both those who aligned themselves with the anti-racist movement as well as neo-Nazi factions. Only the colour of their bootlaces differentiated one side from the other. In the ‘90s, the shoes were depoliticized as teenage grunge devotees adopted the look en masse in an effort to emulate the era’s fashion icons (see: Kurt Cobain). Any political message that could have been conveyed by a pair of boots was diluted by the brand’s ubiquity.

Fred Perry had its yellow and black polo shirt co-opted by the Proud Boys, a hate group Canada exported to the US via Vice magazine founder Gavin McGinnes. The Perry brand was so upset that the group was wearing its logo that it pulled the specific line of shirts from shelves across the continent, issuing a lengthy statement that read, in part, “Despite its lineage, we have seen that the Black/Yellow/Yellow twin tipped shirt is taking on a new and very different meaning in North America as a result of its association with the Proud Boys. That association is something we must do our best to end. We therefore made the decision to stop selling the Black/Yellow/Yellow twin tipped shirt in the US from September 2019, and we will not sell it there or in Canada again until we’re satisfied that its association with the Proud Boys has ended.”

As a brand, Fred Perry has existed since the 1940s and will certainly outlast McInnes’ Proud Boys. The long arc of fashion history ties the label to icons worth remembering: Amy Winehouse, The Specials, Skepta, and Blur’s Damon Albarn. Who, though, will speak for the Hawaiian shirt? It has no powerful brand ambassador and comes with a history of politicization more complicated than its light-hearted bbq associations.

Despite decades of a quiet existence as a cruise wear staple for retirees or a winking, irony-conveying hipster accessory, the garment previously came up against controversy following the WWII attack on Pearl Harbor. Initially, Aloha shirts were made from leftover Japanese kimono fabric, gaining widespread popularity across the continent during the Great Depression. Adjusted for inflation, the Hawaiian shirt trade was pulling down $11 million each year by 1940. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese-inspired prints fell out of favour, replaced by politically docile patterns featuring palm trees in place of cherry blossoms or surfers instead of Shinto shrines. Instead of abandoning the medium, manufacturers and consumers were able to tweak the message by shifting a single element which worked to recontextualize the style entirely.

From the 1950s onwards, cool (Frank Sinatra, the members of Rocket from the Crypt) and uncool (Ronald Reagan, Al Bundy) pop culture figures donned the shirts, influencing slight rises and falls in the garment’s appeal. Eventually mass manufacturing meant that the Aloha shirt became less associated with its geographical origins and was tied more closely with suburban dad summer (the yin to hot girl summer’s yang). In some respects, the shirt’s ubiquity has become its superpower — even when donned by white nationalists, the omnipresence of the Aloha can drown out negative political connotations even if it can’t diffuse the hateful ideology behind them.

Of course, context matters. A Hawaiian shirt at a barbeque can send one message while one worn to a political rally sends another. An single individual wearing the shirt goes unnoticed by all but the sartorially sensitive. A crowd of marchers all dressed in the garment can spark fear, floral patterns notwithstanding. As with Doc Martens’ colour-coded laces, in-group status (or at minimum a certain level of group awareness) is required to precisely interpret the intentions of the wearer. Nevertheless, when an item becomes a uniform the uniformity itself is the message. One that says “We’re a group, we believe the same things” without having to state explicitly what those things are. It’s another weapon in the arsenal of dog-whistle tactics employed by the alt-right. In this case, the Aloha shirt’s sunny disposition is the adherent’s plausible deniability.