This recently acquired halter and shorts set sent me down a rabbit hole of Hawaiian textiles. The beginnings of the Hawaiian shirt are a bit obscure, but the first ones were probably made from silk fabrics from Japan in the 1920s. Most of them were made by small shops in small batches. The large scale manufacture of shirts from Hawaiian fabrics started in the mid 1930s.
My set was made by Kahala, one of the first companies to manufacture “Hawaiian” garments. It was started in 1936 by Nat Norfleet and George Brangier, neither of whom was a native Hawaiian. Their company, Branfleet, was using the Kahala name and label by 1937. From what I’ve been able to find out, women’s garments were not made until after World War II, but then clothing for women became a major part of their business.
It is possible that my set is actually a bathing suit. It is completely lined in cotton jersey.
What Norfleet and Brangier discovered was that men would buy a shirt made from their Hawaiian fabrics to wear while in Hawaii, but women would continue to wear their Kahala garments after returning home. I’d say this was much better than today’s not so subtle brag of the souvenir tee shirt. You could remind the neighbors of your Hawaiian trip while looking fabulous.
I don’t find a lot of older Hawaiian garments here in the Southeast. People here were much more likely to vacation in Florida, or if a little more affluent, Cuba. But from the few older Hawaiian shirts I have been able to closely examine, I can tell you that the fabric is very different from the newer rayons made in the 1980s up through the present time. My set is rayon, but it is lightly textured, though smooth at the same time.
The button is made from coconut shell, and adds another layer of Hawaiian authenticity.
But the star of this set is the print. The richness is achieved with the use of at least fourteen colors. I especially love the light blue used with so much red.
According to my one and only book on Hawaiian shirts, the very earliest prints were tropical flowers and tapa cloth prints. Scenics like mine soon became popular as well.
The Hawaiian Shirt, by H. Thomas Steele, was one of the very first fashion books I bought. I can remember looking through it in the local B. Dalton book store and trying to justify the purchase. It was published in 1984, so I’m sure it was shortly after than that I added this to my very small, but growing, fashion history library.