By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Ellery J. Chun, who might not have exactly invented the Hawaiian shirt but who surely gave it a powerful push toward prominence, died in Honolulu on May 16. He was 91.
Once there were no shirts in Hawaii, much less pink ones with ukuleles, but shocked missionaries hastened to introduce a plain, solid-color work shirt called a palaka to men. Women got long, shapeless dresses called muumuus. These early garments were made of native tapa, or bark cloth. Soon patterns were added.
As American tourists began to arrive on cruise ships in the 1920's, small tailor shops began making custom prints on the shirts for the visitors. Hawaiians, in turn, started using them for weddings and other special occasions.
Enter Mr. Chun, a native Hawaiian who graduated from Yale as an economics major in 1931. He turned a Chinese dry goods shop, King-Smith Clothiers at 36 North King Street, into the first mass producer of Hawaiian shirts. Most important, he gave them the name by which they are called on the Hawaiian Islands, aloha shirts. His wife, Mildred, said the shirts were a way to keep his clothing business going during the Depression. She told The Honolulu Star-Bulletin that he started with a few dozen bright printed Hawaiian patterns with palm trees, hula girls and pineapples. She said his tailor sewed three or four dozen at a time.
By 1933, he was producing ready-to-wear models from cloth imported from the United States mainland, Japan and Tahiti. Surfers and beach boys snapped them up, and before long the shirts had become symbolic of easy, casual masculinity. To be sure, the cheap imitations, particularly those featuring pink flamingos, became gaudy badges for tourists. Aiming higher, marketers let it be known that each color on the more expensive styles carried ancient significance: Yellow meant victor, red valor and white holiness. Montgomery Clift wore the Diamond Head pattern in "From Here to Eternity"; Elvis Presley wore the Blue Hawaii pattern in the 1963 move of the same name, and Tom Selleck's Bird Airbrush shirt from his "Magnum P.I." television series ended up in the Smithsonian Institution.
Frank Sinatra, Arthur Godfrey and Bing Crosby wore aloha shirts. Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower equated them with weekends. In Hawaii, at least on Fridays, the shirts became acceptable as business garb. And the older shirts became collector's items. The most expensive command prices of up to $5,000.
In 1997, the Honolulu Academy of the Arts mounted an exhibition of the most iconic aloha shirts.
To Mr. Chun, the shirts were good business. His store embellished its easygoing reputation by sponsoring a radio talent show in the late 1930's, which originated from the stretch of Waikiki Beach fronting the Moana Hotel.
In 1945, Mr. Chun became a director of American Security Bank. He closed his clothing outlet and remained with the bank until retiring in 1966. In 1991, the Hawaii Senate honored him for his shirt-making achievement. In addition to his wife, Mildred, he is survived by two daughters, Colleen Hirano and Christine Chung; a son, Damon; a sister, Wai-Chee Yee; and four grandchildren. "It turned out well," his wife said.