I’m sure I don’t have the largest collection of Aloha shirts in the world, but I do have the largest collection of anyone I know. If you’re wondering where you might find an Aloha shirt aficionado, cease your search, for I am he. As of today, I know this to be indistputable fact.
I have a long and abiding relationship with these works of wearable art. Since my undergraduate days, I have worn Aloha shirts nearly exclusively every time I leave the house. The one break in my streak came when I went to school in Wisconsin. Ignorant of how I might deal with the weather situation in Madison, I traveled there with nothing but a few non-Aloha shirts I purchased for immediate wear, figuring that I’d buy most of what I needed, once the cooler weather set in. And set in it did. And buy the Midwest winter garb I did, including long johns, a secular substitute for sackcloth, the wearing of which places one but a small step from the further punishment of self-flagellation.
If you’ve never experienced winter in the Midwest, I congratulate you. It is cold. I don’t mean like a cold beer. I mean some days, with wind chill, we’d be down in the minus 50s, and one winter I was there we set a record for the most consecutive days below 0.
But you know what? They’ve invented this thing called indoor heating, and you know what’s more? You do not spend all your days and nights camping outdoors on the ice. In fact, I often found myself overheated, what with the first through third Midwest commandments of thou shalt layer, thou shalt layer again, and thou shalt layer some more. I found that a winter coat and a dress shirt were usually enough for me, and once I discovered this, I asked my folks to mail me several of my Aloha shirts.
I’ll guess I was the only Badger who wore Aloha shirts through the winter, and when, after I finished school, I took a job working at a record store in Madison, my wearing those shirts in the darkest glacial depths of winter brought many a customer into the shop simply because they spotted my shirts. They’d come up to me and say things like, “Is that a real Aloha shirt?” And then they’d buy an album. Mahalo!
Once I moved back to Hawai‘i, it is no exaggeration to say that I wore Aloha shirts from the day I stepped off the plane right up until the day you are reading this. Even when I travel, to China, to Antarctica, to Norway, and to everywhere else, I wear Aloha shirts. Exclusively. Not a day of my working life went by, right up to retirement day, that I did not wear an Aloha shirt.
My current collection is not huge, but neither is it small. I’d guess it to be three to four dozen. These are shirts I’ve collected over the years, and I take great pains when I choose one. Through time I’ve gained a well-trained eye for a good Aloha shirt; my taste is impeccable.
So, this morning, as happens many mornings now that I’m retired, I walked through Ala Moana Shopping Center. Few stores there call to me anymore. Most of the ones that do, as you may have guessed from having read this far, sell Aloha shirts. Some, like Hilo Hattie’s, sell almost nothing but, while others, such as Macy’s, include them as a section of their men’s wear selections.
I have memorized most of the patterns available at many of the shops, but I always stop in to see if there are any new arrivals. There usually are a few, and I run my evaluative eye over them, while also eyeing the price tags.
You know Ross Dress for Less used to have an astonishing section of Aloha shirts. Most of my shirts purchased during that era were from there, but if you check there now, you’ll find next to nothing. I have no idea how they lost their connection to every Aloha shirtmaker’s overstock but lose it they did. There were never any better bargains than at Ross’s, except Goodwill, sometimes. And there were so many beautiful ones. All the time.
The closest thing to Ross’s I can think of now, besides Goodwill, are Target and Nordstrom Rack. Closest, I mean, in terms of low prices. But neither can approach to the mouth-watering array of the Aloha shirt Camelot of Ross’s long ago. I could come out with four shirts that cost $50, and some days I had to control myself, or I would have bought 8 or 10 on the way to bankruptcy.
The prices at most places nowadays? I have no first child to turn over at the Reyn’s cash register, and if I were to hack off an arm and a leg at Tommy Bahama, I’d have a difficult time completing my daily walk. I told a woman working the register there earlier this week that for $100, I’d have to think over the purchase and come back if I decided I could afford the one I had my eye on. I’ve resisted so far. I think I’ve probably won my chess match with temptation.
This morning, then, I stepped into the Kahala store near Macy’s. After checking out the latest patterns nearer the door, I rummaged slowly to the rear, dipping in and out of the other offerings.
A husband and wife, definitely tourists, were examining a good number of shirts, the wife picking them out, commenting on how nice some of them were.
I stopped a few feet away from them and watched the scene unfold. She was the decision maker, and the husband, as she held the shirts up to see them against him, would say things like, “Huh,” or “Uh huh.”
Now given my long history with Aloha shirts, I have to say that some of the ones she liked were hideous. Mostly, they were too busy. And the colors she chose did nothing to accentuate her husband’s aura.
And then she held one up, and as she placed it against his body, I said, “That’s a nice one.”
The wife turned to look at me, open-mouthed, while at the same time the husband after the initial shock of me breaking into their modeling session said, “Do you think so?”
I said, “Oh yes, that’s a beautiful pattern. And the color is perfect for you.”
The wife smiled and said, “Why, thank you.”
The husband said, “Do you work here?”
I said, “No, I don’t work here, but I am a Hawaii shirt connoisseur, and I can assure you that shirt is perfect for you.”
The wife said, “I can tell by yours that you know your Aloha shirts. I love that pattern.”
I nodded and smiled. I was wearing one of my favorite shirts, not just for everyday use, but also for travel.
“Go try it on, Honey, and let’s see,” the wife encouraged.
I continued to browse while the husband went into the changing room. When he emerged, I heard his wife say, “Yes, that shirt is terrific.”
As I left the store, I felt as if I’d done my good deed for the day. Talk about your Ambassador of Aloha.
If you know Ala Moana, you know that Reyn’s is right across the mall from Kahala. I proceeded, there, and did my usual perusal of the shirts near the door. Then, again, I drifted toward the back.
Lo and behold, out of the corner of my eye, I saw that same husband and wife come in. I don’t know why it is, but at neither store did a salesperson approach me and ask what I was looking for. But both at Kahala and now here at Reyn’s, as a salesperson swooped down on the couple. I don’t think it’s an offensive thing. It seems to me that they can tell I’m local and know what I want.
Well, this woman was on them like white on rice. I mean she was following them as if she knew they would be star customers of the day. The couple could hardly make progress what with the saleswoman suggesting this shirt and that. I should add that she was not unpleasant. On the contrary, she was genuinely friendly. But she was certainly a practiced seller.
The wife’s position as selector had been usurped. Finally, however, the super-seller suggested one that registered high on the wife’s taste meter.
“Oh,” said the wife, “that’s a beauty.”
And the husband said, “Well, let’s ask our friend back there what he thinks.”
The saleswoman looked genuinely shocked, maybe because she thought she’d failed to see that the three of us were together – which, of course, we were not.
I, too, was surprised because I’d not realized they’d seen me in the back.
“I think it’s a great shirt,” I said, and I meant it. Everyone, including the saleswoman, smiled.
Once again, the wife encouraged her husband to go try the shirt on. When he emerged, I heard the wife say it was lovely, and the husband said he thought so too. Then, he walked all the way over to me and asked what I thought.
I said, “Yes, that shirt is you.”
“Thanks,” he said, but as he turned I said, “I think I’d try it on one size larger, though. You might find it more comfortable.”
“You think so?” he said, facing me again.
I smiled. “Yes. You know Aloha shirts last years and years, you never know what might fit you ten years from now.”
Now I wasn’t implying that he appeared to be the kind of person who would gain a whole lot of weight over the next ten years. But the shirt was very form-fitting on him. Maybe too tight in some places. and I told him so. “You never know,” I said, “what will happen. I gained twenty-five pounds after I quit smoking, so I’m glad that I buy most of my shirts one size larger. Aloha shirts should always be comfortable.”
“Okay,” he said, “I’ll try one.”
He turned around, but then he turned back to me. “You know,” he said, “these stores should hire you to go around and give people advice about Aloha shirts.”
We both laughed. I left before he emerged from the changing room, so I have no idea how that ended. To make this a good story, a writer who knows what he’s doing should have stayed and seen what the decision on the size turned out to be.
As I left the store I thought about the idea of going from store to store and offering my opinion on Aloha shirts. How, I wondered, would I word a job description were I to type up?