Cigar Aficionado

Fashion: A Shirt Tale

How the dandy shirt stormed the menswear world

Unless you’ve been dressed in khaki or camouflage somewhere in the Middle East for the last year, you’ve noticed something that doesn’t happen very often in the world of men’s dress: a bona fide fashion fad. Sure, jacket cuts change subtly from year to year and double-breasted and three-button suits come and go, but rarely does a new look capture the market so suddenly and pervasively as did the dandy shirt. One day, men were wearing solid white or blue shirts to work and the next, a palette and pattern revolution had taken place. Dress shirts were popping with color and design.

Even those who don’t normally take fashion inventories and who missed the stacks of dandy shirts staring out at them from Tommy Hilfiger ads as they waited at the bus stop could have been apprised of the phenomenon simply by reading The New York Times business section. The paper of record, which normally restricts its garment business coverage to news of executive hirings and department store mergers, trumpeted the trend in an article that saw woven dress shirts making a comeback after years of losing ground to knitted polo shirts. The resurgence, the story stated, came on the backs of shirts festooned with bright colors and bold patterns, something we’d not seen on these shores since the peacock days of the mod era in the ’60s and ’70s.

The paper correctly laid the new look’s origin to “British fops” and specifically Thomas Pink shirtmakers of London. The fad had been here for a while when the Times got wind of it, however. DNR, the menswear trade publication whose job it is to know such things, had spotted it coming from England a year ago, and one such look in particular—a large tattersall print in bold blue on white—has been conspicuously in evidence since late last spring. A detail the Times missed was the superspread collar so often attendant to the style, perhaps because it was mislocating the epicenter of the fad at Savile Row, the home of England’s suit makers. The collar style is trenchant because it pegs the shirt’s British provenance to London’s Jermyn Street, where the world’s greatest concentration of quality gentlemen’s dress shirtmakers is crowded. The spread is the hallmark of its shirts.  The style also marks a return to good dress as collars—so key to a man’s appearance—had been diminutive for years.

It may seem ironic that it took the Brits to show us the charms of colorful, patterned shirtings after our long affair with the drab, but that’s only because we so often think of the English as being so buttoned down when it comes to clothing. That’s not true—either figuratively or literally. Their approach to shirts has long been much more colorful than ours, and the button-down collar has no place in their dress wardrobe. The Brits, with their former slavish devotions to blue suits and club and school ties, have traditionally used shirts as the outlet for creativity. Anyone who walks down Jermyn Street can see that. In shops like Pink, Turnbull & Asser, Hilditch & Key, Harvie & Hudson, and Charles Tyrwhitt, hundreds, if not thousands of mottled shirtings are piled for anyone who cares to order a bespoke shirt or buy one off the peg.

So why, if such an elegant yet fun shirt with an English pedigree was waiting for us right across the pond, did it take so long to discover? Mainly, because we were locked in a great color famine, too obsessed about what would be the next black, if the suit were about to die, and what we should wear on casual Fridays to see the great options that had always been there. We forsook the dress shirt to put all our flair into polo shirts and the like. Shirts with pointed collars were supposed to be somber, probably because of a backlash of sorts to the mod era. The reaction to the absurd excesses of the ’70s had been the pedantic dress-for-success advice of the ’80s, which said don’t take a chance, wear basic white or blue.

Then too there is this vague sense that elegant dress has always been devoid of hue. Our impression of the golden age of classic men’s dressing—the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s—is colored, or rather uncolored, by the way it is so often inexperienced through modern eyes. Due to limitations in graphic reproduction at the time, we see the clothes in black and white in old movies, photographs or sketches and assume they were monochromatic. Of course, they weren’t. Color had become prominent in clothing as early as the Edwardian era, when the restraints of Victorianism were loosened by a new monarch, who deemed it acceptable to smoke again as well as dress like a dandy. White shirts were the fashion statements of much earlier eras that have little bearing on what we wear today. Witness the prominently white shirts of Beau Brummel and the Regency era, the insistent ruff collars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the traditional Eton collars that folded over the jacket itself. All seemed to scream, “Look how white I am!”

Luddites who believe that had God intended man to wear colored shirts He would have created multihued species of cotton notwithstanding, the reason for the white shirt’s predominance in the male wardrobe derives from historic snob appeal. If white is the color of virtue for a woman, for a man it is a sign of cleanliness and therefore social status. Someone who wore a clean white shirt
couldn’t very well have been working with his hands, if he worked at all. Furthermore, he could be assumed to have had the means to keep it clean, that is, employ servants. Today, the preponderance of washing machines, coin-op Laundromats  and loss-leader shirt deals at the dry cleaner devalue the status symbol of clean linens . Not to mention that the dream of a white-collar job long ago lost its luster.

Not all of these latest incarnations of the nonwhite-collar dress shirts are being worn on the job. They’re being paired with jeans or khaki pants and worn without a tie as casual wear, just as casual knit shirts made their way to the office a few years ago. It’s perhaps ironic that the spread collar, which occasioned its own style of neckwear tying—the Windsor knot—to accommodate the extra space at the neck, so often goes open-necked, making the style even more severe.

The only caveat to this trend that makes shirting the man so exciting is the possibility that it is a
flash-in-the-pan fancy and you’ll get caught with a drawer full of yesterday’s fad like those who bought into the Nehru jacket craze of the ’60s. That doesn’t seem likely as everyone from the chic Italian fashion houses, which seem to dominate all fashion, down to discounters like Wal-Mart have gotten into step with the look. Joseph Abboud has doubled its sales of dandy shirts and has made some of the models replacement items, or garments that it continues to make for ongoing sales rather than one-time-only fashion items.

Of course, there are detractors. New York custom tailor Alan Katzman, who suits many of the New York Jets and bluntly preaches caution in fashion, points out that professionals like accountants and lawyers may send out the wrong message with such blatantly dandified clothes. And those who are in front of a television camera a lot may want to shy away from wave-scrambling patterns. There solid blue is the shirt choice as white often appears dirty on camera or clashes with bright lights.

With the bold palette, awning stripes and Jermyn Street collars firmly in place, it seems only logical that further adventures in the shirt realm are in store. Certainly many avenues are open. The collar is an obvious point of departure, with contrasting color like the ones Lee Iacocca brought to fashion in the ’80s being one option. Then Robert Talbott has been making a selection of rounded, pinned and tab collars that hark to when collars detached with buttons to allow replacement throughout the day. The cuff is another place for exploration, with choices such as two and even three (the Turnbull & Asser trademark) buttons, as well as French cuffs. Cuff links, almost de rigueur in London, are slowly making a comeback here, both with new styles and antique collectibles. Of course, you could get with the hip look of wearing the cuffs of a formal shirt unfolded with no link as first seen in the stylish remake of Ocean’s Eleven. Then again, that might be a little too much fashion for us guys.