What to Wear to a Luau

luau party

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If you're hosting a backyard luau, it's up to you to set the tone of the party and loosen up your guests. Besides the typical tropical drink like a lava flow or piña colada, nothing says "Aloha, baby" more quickly than festive, fun, and sometimes silly costumes. Specify on the invitations that your guests should arrive at your party dressed in tropical attire. If anyone asks, suggest they wear a Hawaiian-print shirt or grass skirt that can be found at a party supply store, along with a plastic or silk-flower lei.

But for really creative ideas and inspiration, here are some tropical-themed outfits and accessories that will make your outdoor party a success.

Tom Selleck Aloha Shirt

That Tom Selleck was a hunk—still is—during his days on the TV series Magnum, P.I. Sporting a 'stache, genuine chest hair, gradually bronzed tan, Detroit Tigers baseball caps, and very short shorts, he enthralled us each week as Hawaii-based detective Thomas Magnum. But it was those casual yet sporty Aloha shirts that caught on with the TV-viewing public of the 1980s. Primed with a few ​mai tais and decked in tropical-print button-front shirts, it's likely that more than a few mustachioed stallions of the era envisioned themselves as Magnum or Selleck for the evening. Let this nostalgic image be the inspiration for the next luau you host or attend.

tom selleck in hawaiian shirt
Getty Images

Coconut Bra

A variation would be the seashell bra, which Ariel and her Mersisters wear in The Little Mermaid. It is a simple outfit, really not much to it, quite literally. Clean, dry coconuts strung together and fashioned into a very hard bathing suit top, which can be worn by young, old, women, and men alike. 

woman on beach in coconut bra
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Clothing Made of Tropical Leaves

For a variation on the grass skirt, look for broad-leafed tropical plants in your yard or that of a neighbor (be sure to ask). Good ones for this project: elephant ears and cannas. Attach them to a tie or waistband with Velcro, a loose stitch, stapler, or your go-to tool. Just remember to wear something underneath, like a skirt or shorts.

women in hula skirts
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Muumuu

Chances are, Grandma, Aunt Helen, or that lady down the street strip down to nothing but a muumuu when the temps climb and a rotating fan or sitting in a kiddie pool sipping a mushy margarita won't cut it. A muumuu, or muʻumuʻu, is a loose-fitting short-sleeved or sleeveless dress with no waistline and basically no shape; the tentlike design helps air circulate and cool you off, free of all those undergarments and form-fitting layers. You would not wear Spanx with a muumuu. Add a lei and some flowers—you're ready to party.

French Polynesian women in muumuus
Kyle Rothenberg/Getty Images

Elvis in Hawaii

Elvis Presley visited the Hawaiian islands several times, but his 1973 worldwide telecast concert in Honolulu was certainly one of the most memorable. There, the King performed new and old hits resplendent in an outfit that has been carefully copied by many an Elvis impersonator—the white jumpsuit. Guys, here's your chance to step into the bell-bottomed whites of Memphis Flash and show off your bad self (quite possibly, literally). Don't forget to add lots of flowery leis and a big pair of sunglasses.

Elvis performs in Honolulu on January 14, 1973.
Michael Ochs Arcives / Getty Images

Grass Skirt

Both men and women can wear a traditional grass skirt, just so long as there's a swimsuit or some kind of garment underneath—preferably not white underwear. You can team it with a coconut bra, or traditional swimsuit top, a lei, tropical flowers, a straw hat, puka shells—it's up to you how far and fun you want to take it.

hawaiian dancers
Lisa Hallett Taylor

Leis

Graduates wear them, hula girls wear them, and so should you if the party invitation specifies tropical attire and you have a limited wardrobe, are shy, or choose your outfit at the very last minute. Nothing says "it's luau time" quite like a floral or even plastic lei around your neck. 

floral hawaiian leis
Darrell Gulin / Getty Images

Flip-Flops

Leave the Jeffrey Campbells and booties at home—a luau is all about comfort and being unencumbered. Who doesn't own a pair of flip-flops? You can also wear sandals (without socks) or dress up your flip-flops with tropical tchotchkes, like flowers, monkeys, parrots, etc. Flip-flops are inexpensive, easy to slip on and off, and are unisex.

floral patterned flip flops
Danita Delimont / Getty Images

Vintage Art

Draw inspiration from vintage posters, photos, and graphics of the early-to-mid 20th century, when the idea of visiting Hawaii and South Seas islands was the stuff of far-flung, exotic dreams.

Hawaiian advertising art, ca 1927.
Hawaiian Legacy Archive / Getty Images

Jimmy Buffet Parrothead

If you're a Jimmy Buffet fan, live in a household with one, or have a Parrothead friend, borrow this person's hat, leis, shirt, and other gear to make yourself a walking tribute to the party pirate. For the older crowd, it will probably be a hit; for anyone under 30, you may have to explain the costume—which could be an icebreaker. Make sure to dance during "Margaritaville."

Two "parrot heads" get into the groove of the festivities.
Derek Storm / Getty Images

Hawaiian Tourist

Have some fun and maybe poke fun at your own past fashion faux pas by coming to the luau dressed in full tourist regalia. This might include the brightest, most garish tropical shirt or dress you can find, cheap plastic leis, around-the-neck vintage cameras, tacky hats, fanny packs, and dark socks with those sandals.

couple in hawaiian tourist costumes
Rebecca Handler / Getty Images