Cultural Insights - The Palaka Shirt

The palaka shirt is the one I am wearing on the far left
The palaka shirt, with its distinctive checkered pattern, has a rich history deeply intertwined with Hawaii's cultural and social fabric. Originating from the time of King Kamehameha the Great, the palaka pattern found its way to Hawaii in the late 1900s when Americans imported checkered-patterned cloth from England for field worker uniforms. Initially a design for English sailors, it was affordable due to its plainness. The Hawaiians and Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) named this pattern after the Hawaiian word for 'frock', which was a mistranslation for "checkered". This pattern became synonymous with the working class, especially during the plantation years between 1885 and 1941. Zempan Arakawa, recognizing the need for affordable clothing for workers, began producing long-sleeve work shirts, making palaka a staple in every Hawaiian's wardrobe. By the 1930s, palaka shirts were worn for various occasions, from school to parties, symbolizing its widespread acceptance and significance in Hawaiian society.

However, as time progressed, the palaka's dominance began to wane, especially during the Silver Screen years between 1945 and 1960. While palaka had its moments of popularity among tourists, it was the vibrant and colorful aloha shirt that began to captivate both locals and visitors. The aloha shirt's appeal was further amplified by Hollywood's portrayal of Hawaii, with movies promoting the "go Hawaiian" theme. The palaka, once the emblematic shirt of Hawaii, started to be overshadowed by the allure of the aloha shirt, which was seen as fresher and more comfortable due to its rayon fabric. Despite this, the palaka remained a symbol of local identity, especially during the 1960s to 1980s, when it became a sartorial emblem in local politics.

In recent years, the palaka's popularity has diminished, particularly with the closure of iconic palaka producers like Arakawa's in 1995. The decline in the quality and availability of the fabric, coupled with changing fashion trends, has made the palaka less prevalent. However, its significance in Hawaiian history cannot be understated. As Zempan Arakawa aptly put it, "palaka is more Hawaiian than the Hawaiian shirt." Today, while the palaka might not be as ubiquitous as it once was, its legacy as a symbol of Hawaii's unique culture and identity remains indelible. It stands as a testament to Hawaii's rich history, representing the islands' spirit of unity, resilience, and aloha.