How the heck did brightly colored, floral-patterned Hawaiian shirts become the symbol of white nationalism?

This is weird, and it falls in the category of strange stuff. But from what I can gather, the flowery shirts are now the top choice of extreme-righters as a quick and sure way to identify fellow followers intertwined in large gatherings. This heads-up symbol allows them to quickly organize in protest groups.

Trouble-makers and onlookers often suddenly appear like flash mobs at protest sites. The shirts can quickly inform the thugs who is on their side. That visual signal can be critical if the mob hopes to inflame a gathering and overtake a situation.

Let me add this: Hawaiian shirts should only be a sign of those who have just returned from vacation on those beautiful paradise islands. The shirts are wishful symbols of rest, peace and contentment — not hot-headed rage and violence.

My wife’s brother Harry, who lives in Los Angeles, went through a spell a few years back when he wore nothing but Hawaiian shirts. He collected a closet full. Harry tried to give me one of the colorful shirts, but I demurred in favor of an orange and blue pullover. 

If memory serves me, I can recall two American presidents who were often seen in Hawaiian shirts. Both Harry Truman and Richard Nixon were loyal collectors and avid wearers. 

Truman sported his flowery, colorful shirts mostly when he visited the presidential retreat at the Key West naval air station and Nixon when he spent time at his personal Florida retreat at Key Biscayne. Truman looked cool in his, while Nixon looked uptight and suspicious. 

Also, the old crooner Bing Crosby was so smitten with the shirts that he started his own line of wear back in the early 1940s. I recall seeing him at the piano singing away in one of his colorful Hawaiian shirts.

My dad George, a Navy sailor, brought a shirt back from Hawaii after World War II. He became a fan while he was stationed there during the fighting.

Research on the shirts uncover that it was the Japanese who introduced them to Hawaii when Japanese families vacationed there back in the 1920s and ‘30s. Those rare old shirts from then sported Japanese flowers and symbols, though.

Hawaiian manufacturers looking for a break picked up the idea of using gorgeous native flowers and tourist sites as designs for their shirts. Visitors went wild buying and bringing them back home.

In those early days, the shirts were considered part of the islands’ tourism industry. Later, to promote Hawaii’s natural beauty, the shirts’ images switched over to colorful flowers, favorite beaches and natural sites.

Just about every American citizen who visited the islands brought one or two of the shirts home. Soon after, the popularity of the shirts created a rage for them that spread across the country.

As a teenager back in the late 1950s, my brother Raymond purchased a comfortable Hawaiian shirt at a men’s store on Broadway in Columbus. The shirt was covered with eye-popping orchids. To use a quote from President Calvin Coolidge, Raymond “used it up and wore it out.” 

After having said all this, it’s still really hard for me to imagine something so pretty and appealing being mixed up with something so hateful and disgusting.

How aloha shirts ended up as the sign of unrest at protest sites in the U.S. is definitely disappointing. As weird as it seems, though, the eye-catching shirts have become the identifiable mark of white nationalists. 

But if Elvis were still around today and wearing one of his colorful shirts from his big movie “Blue Hawaii,” he’d be recognized and wrongly embraced as a supporter of protest and violence aimed at the establishment. That is not what Elvis was about. He was a true American who served and loved his country. 

In a way, though, it’s a surprise to see Hawaiian shirts making a comeback, but not so much as a symbol of hate rather than hope and happiness.

The flowers on the shirts today include the Aloha “love” flower, Paradise, Gardenia, Blue Ginger, Hibiscus (state flower), and others displayed at flower shows. Where there is beauty, there often is joy. Sometimes, though, something beautiful can be flipped into something ugly. 

One thing for sure. There’s no missing the sight of a Hawaiian shirt in a large crowd. The nationalists choose well, but in a way that demeans the message of these lovely shirts.

 

Ralph Morris is a retired newspaperman who lives near Auburn. His email address is r.morris@ctvea.net.

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