The Hawaiian word palaka comes from the English word “frock”. Some say it comes from the English word “block” as in block print or checkered.
When the American missionaries came to Hawai’i in 1820, this pattern was known to them as rubbish cloth and used for frocks, rags, kitchen curtains and table cloths. The first written reference to the word “palaka” comes from a letter in 1873 of Peter Ka’eo to his cousin, Queen Emma, where he speaks of buying some of palaka fabric in Kalaupapa for use to make some clothing as clothing was scarce in the leper colony.
With the boom of the sugar industry in the 1870s, sugar plantations began to issue uniforms to their workers. This twill or palaka style cloth was seen as cheap and durable and thus became the common attire of plantation workers. Eventually different colors of the palaka became identified with the different races as plantation labor and salaries depended on your race. So plantation workers not only wore bongo tags that identified them by race and erased their names, but also clothes to re-enforce their racial status. With the strikes of the early 20th century, the race-based color coded palaka was done away with to a degree. Plantations instead used the color coding as a way to divide workers by which plantation they worked on or by which camp they were assigned to. Sometimes the palaka colors and the number of buttons was also used to mark one’s seniority. In the 1946 sugar strike where 76,000 workers went on strike for better wages, the red and white palaka and the black and white palakas became a symbols of the movement. The black and white palaka initially was used by the sugar cane workers of all races and then the red by those who supported the sugar cane workers including the dock workers. The 1946 strike became the most successful strike in Hawaiian history.