One of the most fun things about tiki is dressing up in the daringly garish prints and colors of vintage aloha wear. I’m no expert, but having collected aloha wear for a while, I’ve developed some perspectives and opinions. I tend to see aloha wear spanning three distinct eras:
- Early aloha wear, with languid floral prints on rayon (these shirts go for BIG bucks) from the ’30s to the early ’50s
- Mid-century aloha wear, with unusual dress silhouettes and brighter, wilder prints, often in “barkcloth” fabric, from the ’50s through the early ’70s
- Modern aloha wear, with more conventional cuts of the shirts and dresses, with patterns that are generally less graphically interesting, from the ’80s to the modern day
It’s that middle era that I’m drawn to, the vibrant ’60s, so it’s that era that I’ll focus on here. I’m not going to delve into the silhouettes or the patterns (though I’ve peppered this post with pictures of some of my favorites from my collection), just how to find it and how to care for it.
When I started buying vintage clothes in the early ’90s, clothes from the ’60s were easy picking. Fast forward to today, 25 years on, and it’s clothes from the late ’80s that are now in that easily-available sweet spot. It’s with this in mind that I don’t begrudge the younger tikiphiles gravitating to more Magnum, PI/Miami Vice vibe. It’s mostly not my bag, but I get it. It speaks to them.
But most folks can’t get enough of the great variety of wild clothes from Hawaii in the ’60s. Many of these designs were sold in Hawaii to tourists, it was the “resort” wear of its day. As such, they tend to be in good shape. Many folks wore them for a few nights in the islands, maybe for a couple luaus held at home when they returned, and then they languished at the back of their closet for the next few decades.
Finding ’60s aloha wear
Vintage clothing dealers
Where to find these pieces today? Estate sales. I don’t go to estate sales, but I have friends who do: vintage clothing dealers. That’s your best bet today for sourcing the best aloha wear. Get to know your nearby vintage clothing dealers. In my experience, they are a bunch of really good eggs. I suppose there must be bad ones out there, but vintage aloha wear dealers tend to be drawn to these clothes because of a genuine love of them, and a love of getting people into them. They are your natural ally, and once you develop a relationship with a vintage clothing dealer, they will find amazing things just for you.
Here I will cop to something: I am one of the fortunate ones, I am a size that is vintage-friendly, there are plenty of pieces in my size. But vintage clothes dealers again are your ally: they do find pieces in a wide array of sizes, and once they know what you need, a great dealer will keep an eye out for you.
Some of my best finds have been on the road. When you’re traveling, and you’re whiling away the day before an evening of seeing the tiki sites, pop into the local vintage clothing stores and antique malls. Search for “vintage” or “antique mall” in Yelp or on Google Maps. Once you find one shop, ask them where else you should look in town.
If you can’t find a good vintage clothes dealer in your area with aloha wear, head online. Your old pals eBay and Etsy remain a good source for vintage aloha wear. Searches for “vintage aloha wear” may not get you far, that search is now cluttered with a lot of dullsville modern clothing. If you have cash to burn, try searching for “50s shaheen” (for Alfred Shaheen), but you may have more luck with “ui maikai dress” and “kamehameha dress”—those brand names may help you find the vintage clothes dealers online who are selling the kinds of things you want. Browse until you find brand names that speak to you, then search for those brands; find online sellers whose style you like, and browse their wares.
On Facebook there is a buy, sell, trade group, Tiki-Tastic Fashion Swap. (Once you’re a member, please be sure to read the house rules for the group.) I haven’t bought anything there, but it seems pretty friendly and I’ve seen some great stuff posted at good prices.
Another place to buy vintage aloha wear is at a tiki event. The tiki events that have vending usually have at least one vintage clothing dealer. Of course you have a lot of competition at these events; if you suspect your size may be a common one, make sure you hit those booths first for the best odds of finding something fantastic.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, Trader Vic’s in Emeryville is having their annual Tiki Fashion Show this coming Saturday (July 15, 2017). The event starts at 7pm, the fashion show starts at 8pm, and at 9:30 the shopping begins. I’ll be in the show modeling three different outfits, and Otto von Stroheim (of Tiki Oasis) will be DJing. It’s so much fun, a great way to see what tiki fashion is all about, and to find some great pieces for your own closet. It’s organized by Retro Diva, a.k.a. Melissa Gruenhagen. Melissa is probably the one person I’ve purchased the most aloha wear from over the years, she specializes in aloha wear, and her prices are absurdly reasonable.
Finding his & hers matching sets
Matching aloha wear is, for some tikiphiles, peak #relationshipgoals. The heart of the ’60s aloha wear business was selling to tourists in Hawaii, and a huge number of those tourists were honeymooners, making his & hers matching aloha wear a big business. Most of these sets have now been separated, but it’s not hard to find matching pieces. Ask your vintage dealer to keep an eye out for you, or start scanning online for dresses and shirts that match patterns of pieces already in your closet. Ui Maikai brand in particular tends to have a lot of matches.
Black light aloha wear
Some of those blindingly bright colors were achieved with the use of fluorescent dyes. Ultraviolet reactive dyes! That means that some of these pieces do amazing things under black light. I sometimes bring a UV flashlight with me when shopping for aloha wear so I can check if something will POW.
Caring for ’60s aloha wear
Once you have your tiki wear, please care for it well! It has survived all these years, let’s make sure it lasts in your care, too.
Keep those colors crisp and vibrant by washing carefully: take it to a dry cleaner, or if you’re going to wash it yourself, only wash in cool water, and hang to dry. Some of these bright colors will bleed into white areas if you aren’t careful. I hand wash in the sink with Woolite, or soak in the tub with Biz, and then hang to dry. Sometimes I might put a shirt in the washing machine, but I never, ever put my vintage aloha wear in the dryer: the friction and heat from the dryer rubs the top layer of fibers on the cloth and they frizz up, which makes clothes look faded.
Some aloha wear has gold details: that gold is painted onto the fabric, and it will come right off if you’re not careful. Gentle hand washing and hanging to dry is critical to keep gold-painted pieces in good shape. (Melissa Gruenhagen recommends taking it to a dry cleaner instead.)
And please, please, please: be careful with how you alter a vintage piece. If you take in a vintage garment, don’t trim the seam, leave the excess fabric there so it can be let out again in the future. Think twice—three times—before lopping a long skirted dress into a mini: particularly on the dresses with a train, it looks absurd. They don’t look fun and flirty, they look like a once-beautiful tree that’s been lopped down to a stump. Keep looking for the true mini-skirted silhouette you desire, they’re out there.
I’ve started organizing my aloha wear by color. At first it seemed like a silly indulgence, but it has turned out to be practical. I think that before I did this, my collection of aloha wear was visually overwhelming, and it was a bit of a barrier to really enjoying and using it. Now I have a much easier time finding what I’m looking for, I’m reaching for the “deep cuts” and keeping a wider rotation of pieces being worn, I’m better about keeping things hung up properly.
Melissa Gruenhagen from Retro Diva has added her care tips:
With regards to cleaning I’d also like to go as far as to say if you’re lucky enough to get something with no gold loss. Just take it to the dry cleaners. It’s just too easy to wash that stuff off. And for grandma’s recipe for getting a stain out of almost anything, works great on barkcloth, take oxyclean and mix with a liquid detergent and make a paste. I also add a bit of Dawn for the grease cutter. Mix well and scrub into both sides of the stain with an old toothbrush or scrub brush. Get in in there good. Let sit over night. A few hours is not enough. Then wash in the warmest temp you think it can handle. It will take 90% of stains out without harming the fabric. May take a couple applications / washes.
I’m barely scratching the surface on the topic of vintage ’60s aloha wear. I hope you find as much joy in dressing like a ding-danged rainforest-frog-lookin’ tourist as much as I do.