Learn Honolulu's history from a bus driver's shirt
By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer
On Aloha Fridays, Honolulu bus drivers don't have to wear their signature aloha bus shirts. It's the one day each week when they can wear any old aloha shirt they choose.
Most of them wear the "official" shirts anyway.
Why not? For almost 30 years O'ahu bus drivers have been setting the island standard for relaxed fashion statements everywhere they go, from the No. 2 School Street route to the No. 70 Maunawili. After all, who needs to look and feel cooler than the men and women steering 40-foot, 75-passenger vehicles through Honolulu's ever more congested streets?
Riders with an eye for fashion can practically trace the whole modern history of Honolulu in the shirts of their drivers, from the time of the 25-cent fare to the HandiVan; from the old-fashioned blue-and-white line drawings to the brighter, multicolored and multitextured designs of today.
"It was quite an evolution," said Tom Enomoto, customer communications coordinator for O'ahu Transit Services. "You can read the whole course of technology changing just by studying the shirts."
It wasn't always so. In the early days of Honolulu's mass-transit program, street-car drivers were forced to wear an almost-military uniform. Old pictures show the drivers in identical all-black outfits: black pants, black shirts, black ties, black shoes, black hats with a shiny policeman-style badge.
Update stodgy image
Even when Calvin Kapua started working for the old Honolulu Rapid Transit company 42 years ago, drivers on the un-air conditioned buses had to wear long-sleeved shirts with a tie or bowtie.
"People always thought I was a prison guard. I guess the idea was to convey an image of seriousness and safety," said Kapua, who today is the training coordinator and introduces each new batch of bus-driver recruits to the history of the company and its shirts during an orientation session.
Former Mayor Frank Fasi introduced the "new-identity apparel" about 1974, hoping to change the bus' stodgy, old image to a fresher, more fun one that would help lure more drivers out of their cars, something bus planners are still working on.
"Oh, we were really happy when we didn't have to wear neckties anymore," Kapua said. "Everything started to change. It made the drivers look really sharp and made them more welcoming."
One of the early shirts had a stylish map of O'ahu and a motto that read "Remember when 50 cents went a long, long way? It still does on TheBus."
Since then, the companies running the city bus service have issued new designs every two to three years, Enomoto said. Typically, each new design comes in three color combinations and three styles: pullover, button-down and a women's smock. They are made by some of the state's biggest fashion companies: Tori Richard, Malia International, Iolani, Jams.
Drivers must buy their own shirts at discounted prices, but once they are in circulation, the shirts are never retired. After a few years on the job, a driver can build a wardrobe large enough that he or she can wear a different shirt every day of the week.
"You can really date how long a driver has been working here by how many shirts he has," Kapua said.
Some designs have had familiar bus destinations incorporated: Kane'ohe, Makiki, Kalihi, Kalama Valley, Wai'alae and Nanakuli; others have included a map of the island and familiar landmarks such as Aloha Tower, Diamond Head, the USS Arizona Memorial and Aloha Stadium.
In the late 1970s, there was a drawing of some swimsuit-clad visitors boarding "The Beach Bus" to Waimanalo.
1980s designs included the flexible "reticulated" bus.
In the 1990s, the Handivan was added to O'ahu Transit Services, and to the shirts, too. Somewhere along the line, the bus fare, now topping $1, was dropped from the prints.
The first few designs were mostly bus-oriented, but newer ones have been expanded to include just about everything associated with island life: pineapples, squid, hibiscus flowers, rainbows, snowflake quilt patterns, birds of paradise, canoe paddlers, honu, the Hokule'a, nene, tapa designs, palm trees, clouds.
"We wanted to move beyond transportation. The idea was to pick up on the whole Hawai'i sense of place," said Sandy Hiraoka, a graphic designer who worked for the transit agency from 1993 to 2000, designing several shirts and dozens of bus passes that have now become collector items.
The shirts also convey a spirit of 'ohana that exists among the bus drivers and others who work for OTS, she said. "It's really the best place I've ever worked. The company lives aloha from the top down, and the shirts reflect that."
For drivers still not satisfied with the variety of TheBus shirts, Kapua runs a side business that adds new colors to existing shirts. For a small fee, he'll take a standard shirt and dye it with one of more than a dozen new colors.
He works by hand, using Rit fabric coloring dissolved in large aluminum roasting pans, testing small swatches of cloth before advancing onto whole shirts.
The shirts are sold only to the 1,700 employees, Enomoto said; TheBus has never considered opening its own logo store and selling the shirts to the public, although there's an occasional inquiry from an envious passenger.
"You can't buy them at all," Enomoto said. "But if you're nice to your driver, he might buy one and give it to you."