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

April 13, 2021

The return of the Hawaiian shirt has been celebrated in the style press, as celebrities—among them, Bill Murray, Rihanna, and Sophie Turner—have been sporting them recently, The Guardian reports.

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

“They are the fashion equivalent of a plantation wedding,” Anishanslin told The Guardian, adding,  “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.”

What’s more, 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 popularized 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 armor 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.

Last year, Reece Jones of the University of Hawaii wrote about how the brightly colored shirts came to represent 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 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.

“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?”

Research contact: @guardian

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