A reflection on the checker past of Hawaiian Denim


What is palaka?
What it is changed from the cloth to the pattern and with the Issei (original Japanese) it meant exactly a woven checkered pattern of dark blue and white like their summer kata’s were made of back home. 
Palaka’s definition is an ever changing one and that gives it a home in many Hawaiian’s hearts, but the conotations of what palaka is and means are ever changing. 

The pre-Hawaii Years
According to research by Alfons Korn, a retired UH English Professor, palaka dates back to the time of King Kamehameha the great, when explorers were infrequent visitors to Hawaiian shores. The pattern made it’s way in the late 1900’s when Americans ordered tons of checkered-patterned thick cloth from England to make the uniforms for the field workers. Originally a pattern type in England for the sailors, it was seen as plain and therefore cheap. The cloth of Nelson’s navy and Yankeedom’s clipper wasn’t known by any name until the Hawaiians and Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) named it after the Hawaiian work for ‘frock’ which was also a mistranslation for “checkered.” Interestingly, the sailors decendents moved to New England and a popular style of furnishing cover can be found in much of the local upholstery.

Peter Youn Kaeo (1836 – 1980), an inmate of the leprosy settlement at kalapapa, reported in a letter to his cousin Queen Emma, dated November 4, 1873, that he recently visited the settlement store and there bought several yards of cotton twill “to make me some frocks palaka” this is the first known use of the word palaka to describe the style of clothing: Short cuts with no tail and meant to be worn outside of the pants.

Remember that at this time, people were still wearing top hats, so imagine how laid back Hawaii seemed when you had no intention of even tucking in your shirt. The workers began to wear the cloth knowing that it was a white people invention, however unaware of how that would soon change. 
The plantation years (1885 – 1941)
At one point, Hope, in his book, estimates that nearly every single man, woman and child in Hawaii wore and had a piece of palaka clothing. It’s hard to imagine because today the closest thing to that saturation-level is the surf shirt. However, the surf shirt is made by many different brands with multiple colors and cuts. In that sense, we are just talking about surfer themed T-shirts, but with palaka, everyone had one and they were all the same color. 
A young man by the name of Zempan Arakawa, saw a need for the workers to find cheaper and faster pieces of clothing. He saved up $5 to buy a sewing machine and began to make different styles of cloth. His store began making a majority of the long sleeve work shirts out of their Waipahu store.  

According to the 1932 Industries in Hawaii survey, palakas, “have their place in the wordrobe of every islander. — Boys and girls wear them to school, to play, to football games, to parties, the younger set war them to house parties, to coctail parties and beach parties; and one of  Hawaii’s most charming matrons, going to the mountains on her honeymoon, wore a palaka with riding breeches and boots as a going-away costume at her wedding. 
palaka began to dip into popularity with the advent of the Hawaiian shirt by Musa-Shiya Shoten Limited, on South King Street which began advertising the “radiant” colors and freedom of the aloha shirt.

This is also when the largest and most well-respected mass-producer of palaka clothing emerged. Goro Arakawa was just a baby when he remembers people in the village begging for the repairs and custom palaka clothing from the end of the Arakawa’s family sewing machine. Up until its closing in 1995, Arakawa sold thousands of palaka clothing and mainstreamed the use of different colors. It is for this reason that he is both revilved and respected in the Hawaiian community.
Margaret S. Young in an open letter to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1980, remembered when everyone she knew wore a long-sleeve, dark blue and white palaka shirt.
“We wore them, long sleeves and all, for picnics and hikes.” she said

The Silver Screen years (1945 – 1960) 
There was a time when palaka was as in demand as the aloha shirt to tourists. According to a transcription by Bob Ebert, a photographer who took pictures of the Hawaiian clothing styles over the years, for a time palaka’s authenticity was just as appealing as the bright and color saturated aloha shirt. 

“I don’t know what they called’em, was part of the uniform and the aloha shirt, every tourist that has ever come to Hawaii usually ends up with a shirt or wore one.”
According to Alfons L. Korn a researcher for the book, “Hawaiian Shirts: frock, shmock-frock, block and palaka,” palaka was already riding its second surge of popularity in 1950. palaka was thought of as a standard piece of clothing and patterning too closely associated with field work for the younger Hawaiians; and the popularity of the aloha shirt in Hawaii in 1930, meant that after hours, workers would change into their aloha attire instead of a palaka-styled cloth. While in the fields, palaka was being rejected in favor of overalls and jeans since it kept workes more protected. But, palaka would become popular once again after it became associated with one of our nations biggest tragedies.

Pearl Harbor brought a greater focus on Hawaii from Hollywood. Moonlight in Hawaii (1941) or Hawaii Calls (1938) were just a few examples of movies that were made to captialize on Hawaii-mania. There were movies that capitalized on the war (“From Here to Eternity”), musicals (“Blue Hawaii”),. and multiple movies that encouraged people to, “go Hawaiian” just like Gidget (“Gidget goes Hawaiian”). 
With these movies, Hawaii began to move away from being culturally represented and move closer into the realm of fantasy. The wave began in 1938 when the first photo of a man wearing an aloha shirt was photographed for Pardise of the Pacific. Soon after, movie stars began to wear the fad. By 1940, officials of the Territorial and City and County governments were allowing their employees to wear aloha shirts, at least in warm weather. These would be one of the first death-nails into palaka’s reign as the official shirt of the Hawaiian kingdom. It’s appeal was beginning to be eclipsed by the aloha shirts appeal to both tourist and locals both due to its fresh style as well as rayon being cooler than the thick draping of cotton from palaka.  
The surfer heyday (1961 – 1971)
palaka moved into the territory of the niche when Hollywood started to move away from Hawaii and the people that stayed did so out of sport. In the mid 1960’s, the Haleiwa store was a sight to be seen: Fedoras, suit and ties, alligator shoes, bomber jackets. The store was a treasure trove of uptight knick-knacks. However, it wasn’t paying the bills. Husakichi Miura, one of two brothers (the other moved to California and made millions when his land was purchased to build Disneyland), went to work in Hawai’i’s sugar fields, first on Kaua’i, then Waipahu, then ‘Aiea and finally at Waialua. In 1901, he brought over a picture bride who was a seamstress.



She taught Husakichi to sew. He moonlighted as a tailor at home, selling work clothes to his plantation buddies, making deliveries by horse and buggy. In the meantime, he got a job as Hawaiian interpreter in the courthouse at Hale’iwa. At the courthouse, he learned when a parcel of land went up for auction because the owner hadn’t paid the property tax. Husakichi bought property little by little, borrowing from tanomoshi or informal community lending groups because the haole banks wouldn’t loan him money.

In 1912, he opened a small store and moved to the location it would stay in for nearly 90 years after a fire destroyed the first one.

The store began selling custom palaka shorts for the surfers, saving each and every measurement even 80 years down the line. If you were a surfer of any professional nature, you had a pair of custom palaka shorts. The surfers at this time lived in their shorts, using them to work, swim and surf: and Miura shorts were the best. 

Competition started to saturate the market with Arakawa’s also sharing store space with 11 new brands including store brands like Liberty House and Sears.




The seventies revival (1972 – 1985)


As Zempan Arakawa would say, “palaka is more Hawaiian then the Hawaiian shirt.”
The shirt began to fade away because of availability of the fabric. The once tight cloth was now being sold thinner and thinner and the quantiies were becoming more expensive. Yet despite this, desire for the cloth did not increase. The local Hawaiians, particularly musicians that were in the public eye started to bring their palaka shirts out of the closet. 
Eddie Akau was the most poignant he was wearing a pair of Miura palaka surf shorts when he tried to save the Koolea from sinking. His sacrifice brought attention to palaka as a means of reclaiming stolen identity. 
Hawaiian music became immensely popular in the seventies with many start-up groups recording their own renditions of classic Hawaiian song as well as making their own slack-key tuned songs.
Artists like Cecil & Kapono or The sons of Hawaii started to wear palaka regularly as a means of showing off their native roots; while Eddie Kamae made the pattern his calling card, even on his most recent album “Yesterday and Today” which sports the pattern flauntingly on the cover.
However, while the music became a symbol of the Hawaiian renaissance, palaka was starting to fade away for the third time. The style paling in popularity to the new surf brands. 
The Decline (1986 – Present)
“Cheaper and cheaper and they keep making it less and less.” said Hope about the declining quality of the material, David Bailey seconds and says that, “a lot of the owners and makers are in their 80’s and passing now.” noting the closing of Miura’s in 2005
“Unfortunetly, there is getting fewer and fewer all the time.” said Bailey who remembers that back in the 80’s he was finding palaka in every used clothing store on the island, but now he usually has to go to trade shows to get his and expects to be paying a substantial amount more in the future. What is now costing around $25, Bailey expects that in the next five years he may be having to pay upwards of $150. 
The Arakawa family doors closed in 1995. The family decided that it was no longer profitable to continue making the cloth that once clothed all of Hawaii. 
“I don’t know. Things chang. Fashions change. If your parents wore’em you don’t want to wear’em” said Bailey
“The classic Aloha shirt came back and palaka is fairly dull.” said Bailey. And as the owner of Bailey’s vintage of course he might agree with the very patrons that buy his aged pieces of Hawaiiana. But maybe he’s right. 
Standing in Bailey’s vintage store with the walls and ceiling chocking on the kitshe side of Hawaiian history, you can see the appeal that the Hawaiian shirt had to someone in Wisconsin or Boston. It’s florescent colors calling you to an island of mystery and relaxation, drawing you to come spend money and leave your worries for the promises of mythical Hawaii. In this sense, palaka is dull. palaka is the part of Hawaii that people don’t want or need to see. The field workers, the acres of pineapple and sugar cane, the race differenes. 
From 1910 to 1940, Hawaii invented it’s culture and identity as a country, and palaka was the clothing that people chose to wear when it was time to build this new country and even when it was time to relax. It is not a pattern made for money or excitement, but to endure the hardships of work and appeal to the eyes of men and women burnt by the sun and hands stained with the earth. palaka is Hawaiian because Hawaii chose palaka. It is unique because with all the initial differences in class, culture and race, palaka dressed every person as a uniform and told the rest of the world: I am Hawaii.