Are Hawaiian Shirts Cultural Appropriation?

Wearing a Hawaiian shirt is generally not considered an example of cultural appropriation.

Whether something is (or isn’t) cultural appropriation is generally decided by the culture to which the item belongs.

There does not currently appear to be a strong sentiment among Native Hawaiians that the shirt should not be worn by non-Hawaiian people.

This is likely because a Hawaiian shirt isn’t a religious or historically ceremonial item of clothing.

Therefore, it’s usually okay to wear a Hawaiian shirt.

What Is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation refers to adopting aspects of an oppressed minority’s culture without their permission in a disrespectful way.

An example of this would be to use the ceremonial or religious garments of another culture as a Halloween costume.

While embracing different cultures and immersing ourselves in them a great way to come together as a human race, there’s a fine line between embracing another culture and appropriating it.

Any use of a culture’s clothing, rituals, dance, or music without understanding their significance or in a way that promotes stereotypes of that culture is considered cultural appropriation.

Related Article: Is The Evil Eye Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural History of Hawaiian Shirts

Although these colorful garments’ origins are pretty murky, many believe that the first Hawaiian shirts started to show up in the 1920s.

This occurred when a group of Japanese women living in Hawaii had the idea of using the material used for kimonos to make men’s shirts with colorful designs.

They started selling these shirts and garnered great interest from locals and tourists alike. With widespread interest, the shirts became a staple in Hawaii, and shortly after, everyone owned at least one shirt.

Since then, Hawaiian shirts have become entrenched in the state’s everyday fashion culture.

Is Wearing A Hawaiian Shirt Cultural Appropriation?

In most cases, wearing a Hawaiian shirt isn’t considered cultural appropriation.

This is because these garments aren’t an inherent part of Hawaiian or Polynesian culture in general. In fact, their origins are multicultural in nature. They blend Japanese kimono material and bright colors that signify the vibrant atmosphere in the state of Hawaii.

On top of that, they were made to be sold not only to locals but also to tourists from other cultures.

A Hawaiian shirt isn’t a religious or ceremonial item of clothing. Instead, it’s considered a part of everyday fashion in Hawaii, and locals wear it in all situations, including work and leisure time.

The only case in which wearing a Hawaiian shirt would be cultural appropriation is if a person is wearing it with the specific intention of degrading Hawaiian culture.

However, if you’re wearing a Hawaiian shirt simply because you fancy how it looks, then it’s perfectly fine.

Are Hawaiian Spirit Days Cultural Appropriation?

The fact that wearing a Hawaiian shirt isn’t cultural appropriation doesn’t mean that nonchalantly using all aspects of Hawaiian culture is also okay.

Things like Hawaiian-themed spirit days can definitely cross the line between cultural embracement and cultural appropriation. This is especially true when the participants lack sufficient knowledge and respect for the significance of Hawaiian religious and ritualistic practices.

Whether it’s engaging in the centuries-old art of Hula or wearing Leis without having any understanding of these things’ importance to Hawaiian culture, doing so may be cultural appropriation.

Hula originated as a form of passing down knowledge from one generation to the next through movements and chants before the Polynesians that settled in Hawaii in the 1820s had a written language.

Therefore, when you drunkenly engage in this ritualistic dance without understanding its sacred cultural importance, it’s considered dismissive and disrespectful.

The same goes for wearing Leis as part of a costume. Leis are a religious symbol in Hawaiian culture and are meant to be presented and worn in a particular manner. Therefore, wearing cheap plastic replicas in a dismissive or mocking way can be considered cultural appropriation by some Hawaiian people.

How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation can sometimes seem like a blurred line that you find difficult to determine whether you’re crossing.

With wariness increasing every day of it, it’s better to be safe than sorry. You don’t want to accidentally insult someone’s culture only because you don’t have enough knowledge of it.

The best way to ensure that you’re not engaging in cultural appropriation is to thoroughly research the culture in question and understand its intricacies.

By understanding the meaning and significance of certain elements of a different culture, you’ll have a better feel of whether engaging in it is appropriate or not.

Additionally, with social media and the technology of the world we live in today, you can easily reach native people from almost any country. You can ask those people whether they would find certain things offensive and degrading to their culture or not.


The bottom line is, in most cases, Hawaiian shirts are not cultural appropriation. The only reason wearing a Hawaiian shirt will be considered cultural appropriation is if a person is wearing one solely to make fun of Hawaiian culture.

Other than that, it’s perfectly fine to wear Hawaiian shirts; they’re worn by locals for all occasions and don’t have any religious or ritualistic implications.

If you’ve bought a Hawaiian shirt and are unsure whether to wear it, you can don that vibrant shirt all summer!

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

3 thoughts on “Are Hawaiian Shirts Cultural Appropriation?”

  1. I’m shocked this is even something to be written about. People can wear whatever they want, for whatever reason. I actually think that it is quite confusing that we live in a society that encourages such a blending of race and culture, but are so closed minded to the fact that people are influenced by it and adopt it into fashion and self expression. As a Christian, I think it’s ridiculous that a cross is worn or displayed so frivolously and by those that might not even understand the significance or meaning. Yet, to be offended by it? How is that helpful? How can anyone assess someone’s intent as to why they wear something?

    1. That’s definitely a popular perspective on cultural appropriation that’s worth being heard. I don’t really get offended by what others wear either.

      My main concern is that I don’t want to offend other people’s cultures (regardless of whether I agree with them) … right now I’m in Thailand and I’m researching these sorts of questions about Thailand and Buddhism just to make sure I respect them as a visitor to their country.

      I guess a lot of people who go to Hawaii have this question in a similar way.

    2. Darlene Axtell

      It has nothing to do with someone else’s intent, rather it has to do with how people from that culture feel. When we don the clothing of the Native Americans, for example, I believe it certainly is. Here is why: 1. Native people regard their head dresses, for example, to be sacred. 2. They have specifically asked us not to do that. 3. Native Americans have been marginallized for years. Their lands were taken and they were on reservations. Whites also took their children and tried to wipe out their culture.

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