Picture the stereotypical American tourist, as depicted in scores of movies and thousands of cartoons: An obese, bumptious couple clad in matching, incredibly loud Hawaiian shirts, expensive cameras dangling from their necks, sunburned faces peeling. And it's not only their shirts that are loud; they're just loud, in general, with their demands, complaints and bad manners. Not a pretty picture, is it? Fortunately, it's not a very true one, either. American tourists have learned to go with the flow, behave courteously and dress appropriately. In Hawaii, casual attire is the norm – not frumpy or rumpled, just smart and relaxed. And, of course, the Hawaiian climate must always be taken into consideration.
Pack for the Climate
Hawaii does have seasons – all two of them. Summer (kau) lasts from May to October with an average daytime temperature of about 85 degrees F, and winter (hooilo) from November to April, with a daytime average of about 78 degrees F. Nighttime temperatures are typically 10 degrees cooler than daytime averages. And elevation and location affect weather, producing some very localized weather patterns. Generally speaking, the higher the elevation, the cooler the temperature, which drops about 3.5 degrees for every 1,000 feet above sea level. Rainfall is also localized, falling mostly at the higher elevations. The Hawaiian climate is affected by the cool trade winds produced by high-pressure zones in the North Pacific. On any given day, it might be cool and raining at the top of a mountain and dry and hot on the beach. Keep track of the weather forecast for where you're going to be and when you'll be there. Pack accordingly.
No matter where you are or what elevation you've reached, the sun will always be a factor on the islands. Even on cloudy days, the inexperienced visitor can get a bad sunburn that will not only be uncomfortable during his holiday, but will also mark him beyond doubt as a tourist. So make sure to slather on the sunscreen, and use one that's friendly to the environment. Wide-brimmed hats and caps for both men and women are also suggested for an extra measure of protection.
Research has shown that oxybenzone, a chemical found in some sunscreens, poses an ecological threat to coral reefs surrounding the islands. Help protect the reefs by using sunscreens with titanium oxide or zinc oxide instead.
Where Every Day Is Casual Friday
For most activities on the islands, casual dress is considered completely appropriate. Islanders themselves wear "Hawaiian" (aka "aloha") shirts, board shorts, loose-fitting trousers and comfortable shoes, sandals or flip-flops. Women can wear similar attire and have the additional option of choosing a pretty sundress on a sunny day. Hawaiians also shop at some of the same stores familiar on the mainland, such as Target, Walmart, Sears and Macy’s, where you can find clothes that would go over just fine, both at home and on vacation.
Natural materials, such as cotton and silk, are the most-favored fabrics. In the hot sun, these classic materials are more "breathable" than synthetics. Swathed in polyester, a person can wind up sweaty and itchy. Loose-fitting cotton garments are much more comfortable.
Silk aloha shirts are especially prized, especially when they're genuinely vintage. In fact, collectors avidly search for silk shirts from the 1950s and before.
More "formal" attire may be required at dinner parties, business meetings and posh get-togethers. But even at these gatherings, not much is typically required beyond forgoing the shorts and flip-flops in favor of tucked-in shirts and tailored trousers. When in doubt, call ahead (or ask your host) about suitable clothing. To be on the safe side, pack a dinner jacket, loafers (pumps for the ladies) and a few neutral shirts. Ties probably won't come into the equation, but pack one or two just in case. Business attire for ladies could be a fitted dress or simple suit.
Some of Hawaii's golf courses also have rules for dressing, such as forbidding shorts and requiring collared shirts. Again, call in advance to avoid disappointment.
Be Ready for Anything
If your plans include hiking or camping, for instance, at the Haleakala National Park on Maui, make sure you have the proper gear. It's best to bring any special clothing and equipment with you from the mainland, as sources on the islands may be limited. Since the peak of the dormant volcano of Haleakala is 10,000 feet above sea level, evenings can be quite chilly. Bring along a light jacket or sweater to get maximum enjoyment while surveying the grand vistas and the truly spectacular sunrises and sunsets. On the other hand, when you're away from the peaks and on the beach, swimming and scuba-diving equipment is fairly easy to buy or rent.
The Clothing Culture of Hawaii
As might be expected in a tropical climate, the traditional clothing of indigenous Hawaiians was fairly minimal. Capes and headgear were made of colorful, woven feathers and designated the wearer's place in society. Native Hawaiians also made an unwoven cloth called kapa by beating the barks of a variety of trees into fabric. Color and pattern were added by printing or stamping the cloth with vegetable dyes. Flowers were beaten into the kapa as well, giving the fabric more color and a floral scent. The kapa was then used to construct breechcloths (malo) and skirts (pa’u). The colors and patterning evolved into the casual clothing worn today.
The familiar muu-muu was originally introduced in the early 19th century by missionaries, whose sensibilities were ruffled by the Hawaiians' scanty (though practical) attire. In time, however, the Hawaiians brought their own sense of style to this voluminous garment. Now, variations of the muu-muu are worn by women for both everyday and more formal occasions. Sundresses are also popular, especially those printed with traditional floral or abstract patterns. Their rich and vivid hues are stylized and artistic, but not gaudy.
Enjoy your colorful visit to Hawaii, its friendly people, the awe-inspiring natural surroundings and the many activities to choose from. And if somebody does suspect you might be a tourist – well, that's not the worst thing in the world. Most Hawaiians are happy to welcome new visitors to their beautiful state.