Collecting the spirit of Hawai‘i through aloha shirts

Collecting the spirit of Hawai‘i through aloha shirts

New Zealand and Pacific collections intern Sonya Withers and history curator Claire Regnault recently travelled to Hawai‘i where they collected 83 aloha shirts with a focus on indigenous Hawaiian designers. Claire Regnault reflects on the connection these designers have with their natural environment and how this inspires their designs.

Why aloha shirts?

In October, Sonya Withers and I travelled to Hawai‘i to work with Noelle Kahanu, a cultural specialist from University of Hawai‘i’s Public Humanities and Native Hawaiian Program, on a co-collecting project for the Pacific Cultures team.

The collecting team - Claire Regnault, Sonya Withers and Noelle Kahanu with Bradley from Honolulu's Barrio Vintage. Photo: Bradley
The collecting team – Claire Regnault, Sonya Withers, and Noelle Kahanu with Bradley from Honolulu’s Barrio Vintage. Photo: Bradley

Our aim was to work together to assemble a group of aloha shirts for Te Papa’s growing collection of Pacific-infused fashion. Why aloha shirts? Well, as Tommy Holmes (1945-1993), a founding member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and avid aloha shirt wearer, once observed:

“There is probably no better garment in the world that captures a land’s ‘spirit of place’. For half a century, the aloha shirt has been Hawai‘i’s most ensuring and visible greeter and ambassador – like a lei, the aloha shirt is worn as a statement of one’s love for, and connection to, a most special place.” (1)

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Aloha shirt by Malihini featuring Hawaiian mele (songs), c. 1950. This shirt belonged to Tommy Holmes. Te Papa.

Rather than developing a survey collection of aloha shirts throughout the decades, we chose to focus primarily on how Hawaiian culture has been represented through the aloha shirt, and on native Hawaiian designers who have reclaimed the aloha shirt as a canvas for communicating indigenous cultural values.

Prints with intent

In Hilo, we met Sig Zane, one of the ‘grandfathers’ of indigenous aloha shirt design. Sig’s design career began when he fell for Nalani Kanakaole, a hula dancer from a renowned family of cultural practitioners. He used pattern and print to woo her.

Sig Zane in his office in Hilo, fresh from the surf.
Sig Zane in his office in Hilo, fresh from the morning surf.

“I wanted to make gifts for her that no one else had. And so, I learnt silk screening… I started making these plant forms, because I knew that in hula, all these plants were important. So the liko, the very tips of the ohia plant were symbolic of new growth. And especially in a dancer, that means you are projecting the very best, the very tops of the plants, the maile to bind… So those became the first designs, because I wanted to gift her something that meant something.” (2)

Sig’s screen-prints worked their magic, and since the mid-1980s, he has crafted designs steeped in hula culture.

Sig Zane's hand-cut design for his Kalaukī aloha shirt. Photo: Claire Regnault
Sig Zane’s hand-cut design for his Kalaukī aloha shirt. He comments: “Green Ti leaves are an essential plant in our lives, used in the kitchen, medicinally, and especially protection. Of the native varieties, the Kahuna Ti is highly regarded for its use in ritual and ceremony. Our name for this design, Ka-lau-kī, is the long form used in the Hawaiian language.” Photo: Claire Regnault

The importance of hula

Hula dancers, both male and female, are synonymous with the history of aloha shirts and also with Hilo, the home of Merrie Monarch, Hawai‘i’s annual hula competition. In his designs, Sig continues to focus on plants associated with hula, commenting:

‘The forest is an important part of hula. The ferns, trees, vines, leaves, and flowers are the embodiments of hula. As we gather each frond and leaf, we are taking the bodies of our deities. We honor and respect the greenery as we weave our lei and decorate our bodies. When we dance, we become the trees. We are the flowers. We are the ʻŌlapa.’ (3)

When we met with Sig he was wearing a shirt adorned with lehua blossoms – the flower of Laka, the goddess of the hula. Hula dancers traditionally wear lehua blossoms around their heads, wrists and ankles. The ʻōhiʻa lehua, which is also known as Pele’s flower or the fire tree, comes from the same family as our pohutukawa.

In Hawaiian mythology, ʻŌhiʻa and Lehua were lovers. Pele, the volcano goddess, however, was also in love with ʻŌhiʻa. When ʻŌhiʻa rejected her advances, Pele turned him into a tree. Out of pity, the other gods turned the distressed Lehua into a flower, and placed her upon the ʻōhiʻa tree. It is said that when a lehua flower is picked from the tree, the sky will fill with rain – the separated lovers’ tears. The ʻōhiʻa lehua is prevalent in the rainy, volcanic landscape surrounding Hilo.

While on Hawai’I Island, we had an audience with Pele who lives in the Halemaumau Crater at Kilauea. Photo: Claire Regnault

While on Hawai’I Island, we had an audience with Pele who lives in the Halemaumau Crater at Kilauea. Photo: Claire Regnault
While on Hawai’I Island, we had an audience with Pele who lives in the Halemaumau Crater at Kilauea. Photo: Claire Regnault

The ʻōhiʻa lehua is currently under threat from Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death, a disease which also concerns botanists in New Zealand. Under threat, the lehua is a particular focus for Sig. From a Hawaiian perspective he likens screen-printing to chanting. Both are repetitive processes, and repetition creates greater intent – “every time we print, the appeal goes out.”

Kealopiko – botanists as designers and educators

Indigenous Hawaiian plants are also an important source of inspiration for the women behind Kealopiko. Ane Bakutis and Hina Kneubuhl, two of the company’s founders, are both trained botanists, and involved in Hawaiʻi’s Plant Extinction Prevention Program. We met with them at their home-based studio on the island of Molokaʻi, where they dye and screen-print their fabrics.

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As many of their designs are place-based, Hina and Ane also took us for a walk through one of their places of inspiration – Kapuaiwa Beach Park, an ancient coconut grove planted in the 1860s during the reign of King Kamehameha V. It was originally planted with a thousand coconut trees – one tree for each of the king’s warriors.

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Deliberating using clothing as an educational tool – “everyone loves clothes” – Ane, Hina and their third member, Jamie Makasobe, showcase Hawaiʻi’s rare plants, animals, cultural practices, and language through their designs. These are developed not in accord to fashion’s seasons, but with those of the gods, Lono and Kū.

One of the Kū season shirts we collected features pua aloalo flowers. Unlike most of the hibiscus flowers depicted on aloha shirts, the pua aloalo is indigenous to Hawaiʻi. It’s one of a few fragrant species of its genus in the world, Hibiscus arnottianus.

Kealopiko's Pua Aloalo shirt. Te Papa.

Kealopiko's Pua Aloalo shirt with its info tag. Photo: Claire Regnault
Kealopiko’s Pua Aloalo shirt. Photo by Claire Regnault. Te Papa

“When in full bloom, it is hard not to notice these incredible blossoms as they decorate both the lofty branches of their trees and the forest floor, shamelessly attracting the eye and captivating the thoughts. If that isn’t enough, their sweet scent is like that of no other flower – ʻaʻohe ona lua.” (4)

In keeping with Kealopiko’s educational focus, the swing tag for the shirt provides wearers not only with information about the flower but also a call to action.

“Encroached upon by alien plants and animals, these habitats are highly threatened. Supporting conservation efforts in these habitats will help to ensure the survival of this species, one of Hawaiʻi’s precious jewels.”

Each year the company gives a percentage of their profits to environmental or cultural programmes.

Concern for place

These modern-day aloha shirts are not just statements of love for place, but calls-to-action to nurture and preserve the very things that make up the spirit of Hawaiʻi.


  1. Quoted in Dale Hope, The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands, Patagonia, 2016, p.31.
  2. Interview with Sig Zane >
  3. Kinolau Hula >
  4. Pua aloalo (Kokiʻo keʻokeʻo) on >


  1. Thank you for this surprisingly interesting item.

  2. Fabulous project Claire and team. Loved reading this!

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