What to Wear in Hawaii to Look Like a Local

By Shawn Forno

Locals in Hawaii are some of the warmest, most welcoming people in the world. Embrace the local aloha style with good vibes and a smile and you’ll be on your way to understanding what makes these islands such a special place.

Hawaii receives more than eight million tourists every single year, so the last thing you want to do is look like one, right? I mean, you know you’re a tourist, and they know you’re a tourist, but you don’t have to broadcast the fact that you just stepped off the plane from the mainland. At least not if you want a shot at experiencing some of the more authentic sides of this island paradise.

One of the easiest ways to look (at least a little more) like a local is to embrace the clothing and styles worn by the people that actually live there. So, to help you out, here’s a locals-only Hawaiian style guide for your next vacation with a few fashion tips, some must-have items, and a list of things you should avoid when you’re relaxing on the islands.

Packing for Hawaii

Hawaiians and locals (yes, there’s a difference) are some of the best hosts you’ll find anywhere in the world. But there is some growing tension due to overcrowding and frankly, some disrespectful behavior on the part of many tourists.

Set yourself apart from the hordes of clueless tourists that think “authentic Hawaiian style” means a Tommy Bahama shirt covered in hula girls and a sunburn line from a pair of wraparound Oakleys.

Here’s a shortlist of must-haves to add to your Hawaii packing list. We recommend packing everything in a mid-sized travel backpack since packing light is easy for island trips. Remember to also pack a daypack (or other personal item sized bag) for sightseeing and beach days.

What to Wear in Hawaii

  • Simple, knee-length shorts: Choose shorts that are at or below the knee in solid colors to offset your new aloha shirts (more on that in a sec)
  • Loose-fitting linen pants: One pair of simple loose fitting linen pants or stylish travel chinos
  • Aloha shirts: Perfect for every occasion, especially if bought locally
  • Aloha sundresses: The women’s equivalent of the aloha shirt
  • Comfy t-shirts: T-shirts are great for casual hangs, a day at the beach, or a nice hike
  • Sunglasses: Protect your eyes like a local
  • Sandals: Locals call them “slippers;” go with Locals (it’s a brand) or Rainbow sandals
  • Multiple swimsuits: Locals wear surf-inspired board shorts and one-pieces
  • Lots of sunscreen: Go for 30 SPF or higher and make sure it’s reef safe (avoid oxybenzone & octinoxate)

Do Hawaiians Wear Hawaiian Shirts?

Let’s tackle the biggest Hawaiian style question first. The short answer is: absolutely. Many Hawaiians and locals wear aloha shirts (aka “Hawaiian” shirts) practically every day including at work, parties, dinner, or just a casual BBQ. They’re everywhere.

In fact, a nice button-up collared aloha shirt is considered formal wear in a lot of places on the islands. So yes, you will see locals (traditionally men, but women too) wearing all sorts of aloha shirts ranging from sun-faded vintage to custom-fitted patterns.

The general rule with authentic aloha shirts is simple: keep it smart and casual. That means no bright and flashy colors or patterns. Locals typically wear more sedate floral patterns or simple geometrical designs.

Picture a Tommy Bahama shirt. Now remove all the over-the-top designs, neon colors, jumping marlin, and surfboards. Now, you’re getting close to an authentic aloha shirt. Locals almost never wear aloha shirts with logos, words, or cliche “Hawaiian” graphics like hula girls, surfboards, or sharks.

Basically, less is more when it comes to aloha shirts.

For this reason, some tourists can be nervous about wearing an aloha shirt, since it feels inauthentic or like cultural appropriation. But as they say, the devil is in the details. You can—and should—wear the heck out of an aloha shirt, especially if you buy it in Hawaii. Buy locally if you can and try to embrace the more traditional look of the locals.

How to Wear an Aloha Shirt

  1. Don’t tuck it in. Let it hang as loose as these chill island vibes.
  2. Avoid logos, commercial products, and crass patterns. Even though it looks badass, Spiderman shouldn’t be swinging around on your aloha shirt
  3. Avoid stereotypical prints: If your shirt has tiki masks, hula girls, surfboards, or woodies (the car), it’s not authentic aloha. Avoid cliches as much as you can.
  4. Embrace local style. Traditional aloha shirts have a pocket that matches the pattern, and the buttons are usually made of wood instead of plastic. Look for silk or cotton shirts instead of polyester.
  5. Wear neutral-colored chinos. The contrast puts the focus on the shirt where it belongs.
  6. Wear shorts. If you don’t want to wear pants, no worries! Aloha shirts look even better with shorts. Just keep the shorts simple in a neutral color.
  7. Don’t mix patterns. If you are wearing louder shorts, skip the aloha shirt.
  8. Get a comfy fit. Traditionally, aloha shirts are worn loose for comfort on hot days.
  9. Get a tan. Aloha shirts look better on people that look like they’ve actually been to Hawaii for more than a few days.
  10. Own it. You bought that awesome aloha shirt to be worn. Don’t let it hang in the closet because you feel awkward.

Aloha shirts are an inclusive garment that locals and tourists can both enjoy. Just try to be respectful, especially with the patterns you wear.

What Do Hawaiians Wear?

Hawaiian style is a lot more than floral print shirts, cargo shorts, and flip flops. And it’s worth noting, again, that there’s a difference between indigenous Hawaiians and long-term locals. Here’s how to dress like a local (or at least someone who can hang with the locals) in Hawaii.

Hawaiian Style Tip #1: Aloha Attire

You’ll see the term “Aloha attire” in hotel and restaurant dress codes. Don’t worry, that just means “dressy casual.”

Aim for smart and relaxed. You’ll fit in just fine. Here are some suggestions for aloha attire:

  • Aloha attire for women: Slacks and a blouse are great as well as an aloha-style dress and sandals.
  • Aloha attire for men: Aloha shirts (obviously) with either loose fitting pants (think linen or cotton) or tasteful length shorts. Polo shirts are also great.

Hawaiian Style Tip #2: Simple, Solid Shorts

Pack a few pairs of shorts. You are going to an island paradise after all. But remember that locals don’t typically wear super short shorts. Wear something a little closer to knee length (like board shorts) to fit in.

Choose understated shorts to pair with your aloha shirt. Keep your shorts neutral and let your shirts do the talking.

Hawaiian Style Tip #3: Linen Pants

It’s tempting to leave your pants at home, but Hawaii can get (a little) chilly at night. Especially during the winter or if you’re staying somewhere at elevation.

A pair of simple, loose-fitting linen pants or travel chinos are a great way to add a little sophistication to your evening look.

Hawaiian Style Tip #4: Don’t Mix and Match Patterns

Locals tend to keep their style a little more chill. Think simple, faded t-shirts and solid-colored shorts or pants. No neon or gaudy patterns or colors. Keeping your pants neutral will help to showcase your new aloha shirt.

Hawaiian Style Tip #5: Don’t Get a Sunburn

Nothing will make you look more like a tourist than a sunburn. Wear sunscreen and appropriate sun protection, including a hat, when you’re in the sun.

Best Shoes for Hawaii

Your footwear is strangely important when visiting Hawaii. You’ll need the right shoes for long day hikes and the right sandals for blending in with the local crowd.

Local Hawaiians call sandals “slippers,” and they wear slippers everywhere. Slippers are comfortable and practical, especially if you’re taking your shoes on and off all day to go to the beach, the pool, or inside someone’s home.

When it comes to sandals in Hawaii, there are really only two real options: Locals or Rainbows.

Locals are the cheaper (around $20), thin, plastic and rubber flip flops. They literally say “local” on them, and they’re aptly named. These sandals are everywhere, mostly due to the low price and comfortable fit. You can pick them up when you land at the box stores in Honolulu or basically any tourist or gift shop on most islands.

Rainbow Sandals ($40-$60) are my personal favorites thanks to the buttery soft leather and durable construction. These sandals get better the longer you wear them as the leather conforms to your foot. They’re also a signature sandal of surfers.

Either brand will make you look instantly more like a local.

What Not to Wear in Hawaii

Hawaii is a pretty laid back place where casual is the norm. When I lived and worked in Kihei, Maui as a bartender, I got away with a few aloha shirts, t-shirts, tank tops, and shorts for months. But just because Hawaiians and locals are chill doesn’t mean anything goes.

Here’s what not to wear in Hawaii.

  • White tennis shoes. Nothing says haole (“foreigner”) faster than chunky white sneakers. Leave the kicks at home and embrace sandals or at least slip on shoes like Toms or other espadrilles. They’re more comfortable and more practical when you spend half your day at the beach.
  • Socks with sandals. You’re better than that. If your toes get cold, wear shoes.
  • Loud Hawaiian shirts. Aloha shirts are the norm on most islands, but there’s a limit. Bright neon shirts and novelty Hawaiian shirts with sports team logos or cartoon characters are only worn by (drunk and annoying) tourists. Enjoy your vacation, but try to do it with a little class and respect for one of the coolest local fashions you’ll find anywhere in the world.
  • Matching aloha shirts. You might think it looks cute, but locals don’t wear matching shirts with their partners.
  • Speedos. You’re (hopefully) going to spend a lot of time at the beach or at least at the pool. Embrace local style with board shorts or longer swim trunks. Speedos aren’t the local style for men for a good reason, the wax on your board can chafe when you’re surfing.
  • Shirts that say, “Hawaii.” It’s like wearing an “I Heart NY” shirt in New York city. Locals don’t scream where they’re from.
  • Leis. Wearing a lei is super fun, and at some point on your vacation you will surely be offered one. Wear the lei you’re given with pride, because embracing local culture is what travel is all about. But remember that leis are usually only worn by locals on special days (like a birthday or holiday), so they’re not an essential “accessory” to your Hawaiian shirt.

What to Bring to Hawaii

Now you’re ready to pack for your Hawaii vacation with an aloha shirt or sundress, long shorts and boardshorts, linen anything, t-shirt or polos, and the rest of your aloha attire.

Pack everything in a carry on, slip on your (Locals or Rainbow) sandals, and enjoy your island adventure.