Hip in a Hawaiian

How the colourful, even gaudy, shirts became a Songkran staple and embedded in Thai culture

Photo: Wisit Thaemngern

Songkran fashion has never been inspiring. With water being thrown, splashed and shot at you from every direction, and with powder melting and seeping into every nook and cranny of your clothes and body, dressing well and looking good are never our midsummer priority.

Yet this year, one fashion item has made a mark on the everyday runway. The Hawaiian shirt, or the aloha shirt, or sua lai dok in Thai -- usually reserved to be worn only during Songkran -- is now being welcomed into the fashion community with open arms. In fact, the return of aloha shirts began earlier this year, when suddenly everywhere from roadside markets to high-end shops put them on the racks.

It actually went back further, in 2013, when hipsters started wearing them simply out of irony -- being cool by appearing to be intentionally uncool. A few years on, high fashion brands like Valentino, Lanvin, Stella McCartney and Prada picked it up, splattering the spring/summer 2017 and 2018 runways with loud colours and floral prints.

Naturally, Hollywood celebrities like Jared Leto and Harry Styles appeared in photographs wearing one. According to some sources, including a satirical Thai page I Am Hipster, the current enthusiasm for aloha shirts in Thailand was a spillover from K-pop bands such as EXO, as well as a local band The Toys, whose good-looking members gave confidence to diffident men that you can actually look good in these campy shirts -- given the right circumstances and pairings. Also, the mass popularity means the shirts are now cheap and available everywhere, making it even more, well, mass.

But one has to wonder how this loved-then-hated-then-loved again shirt came to be, how it rose to fame, and how it became so deeply embedded in Thai culture that it's now a symbol of one of the biggest and most important festivals in the country.

The Hawaiian, a kitschy shirt known for its colourful island-themed prints, traditional floral patterns and Polynesian motifs, did not exist until the 1920s. There has been much debate on who exactly invented the roller coaster of a shirt -- ranging from University of Hawaii student Gordon Young who designed the "pre-aloha shirt" made from yukata cloth; Japanese tailor Koichiro Miyamoto who was the first to run a newspaper ad for the first ready-made "Aloha Shirt"; to Chinese-Hawaiian businessman Ellery Chun, who is credited for popularising the shirt worldwide. First made from kimono and yukata fabrics, artists and designers started to use their surrounding environment as inspiration for the shirt's designs.

Then, in the 50s and 60s, with the advent of mass tourism and the popularisation of casual wear, the aloha shirt became more prevalent around the world. Hollywood, picking up on Hawaii-mania, furthered its popularisation. Montgomery Clift donned one in From Here To Eternity (1953), Elvis Presley wore one in Blue Hawaii (1961), and even presidents Eisenhower and Truman wore them while off-duty. Bands such as The Beach Boys and TV series like Hawaii Five-O also appeared around the same time.

Thai films even started integrating Hawaiiana itself, like in the very popular musical comedy Paradise Island (1969) starring Sombat Metanee. In modern Hollywood movies, Leonardi di Caprio wore Hawaiian shirts in Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Johnny Depp playing Hunter S. Thompson wore Hawaiian shirts in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998). The aloha shirt may have found its way here through tourism and Americana, yet it still doesn't explain how the it became such a national symbol.

Rounding up the sparse information available, the catalyst for these floral shirts integrating into Thai culture would appear to be Jenpob Jobkrabuanwan, a respected luk thung (Thai country music) academic, singer-songwriter, DJ, and the founder of numerous Thai cultural institutes.

Jenpob is widely considered to be a pioneering impresario of the luk thung industry, with a career that started in the late 1970s, about a decade after the genre first developed.

Without fail, all of his public appearances hosting luk thung shows and other events featured him donning a vibrant aloha shirt, to the point where he attained the nickname of the "father of floral print shirts", a name which he carries with honour.

"I never thought that wearing them constantly would start a fashion trend," he says. "I've worn these shirts to the point that it has become my identity. I know that many provinces favour wearing it, but one time, a governor of Lopburi wrote to me asking permission for the city to wear the shirts for their King Narai Memorial Day event. I wrote back saying that he didn't need to ask for my permission, because I'm not the owner of these shirts, but he replied saying no, he had to ask because I had become the symbol for them."

Floral-print shirt factories have also contacted Jenpob, thanking him for raising their value.

"They said that they had lots of orders to the point that they became rich, and it was because of me! I smiled when I heard their claim, but inside I think it's probably true."

With more Thais picking up on the trend and, ironically, associating the shirts with Thainess and important national holidays, the sua lai dok eventually became the uniform for Songkran. As ridiculous as it may look, the bright colours, light fabric, and opacity make it a perfect festive shirt to wear for the occasion, encapsulating in material form the excitement, energy and sunniness of this singular, scorching festival. And now, thanks to its rising trend, no one has to shy away from them anymore.

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