The Flannel Shirt
Photo/Jeff Harris

Flannel is a fabric of many faces. Depending on how it’s worn the worsted material with the comforting nap can evoke widely varying images. It’s the uniform of hard work and rugged industry that makes us think lumberjacks and union suits. It was the original fabric of choice for baseballists and cricketeers alike because of its sturdy resistance to wear and tear. Worn as a nightgown, it is the symbol of chastity. For T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock wearing white flannel trousers on the beach while eating a peach was the height of daring. In the 1990s, flannel costumed a generation of grunge rockers who thumbed their noses at propriety and dress codes. Which is ironic, since in the 1950s the man in the gray flannel was the expression—popularized in both novel and film—for the faceless conformity of white-collar businessmen. But the garment that we are here to praise—plaid flannel shirts—couldn’t be much further from drab.

Flannel shirts offer the male of the species comparably riotous color options. Bills Khakis, the trouser maker that revitalized the fabric that its name reflects, shows some of the possibilities in the looks pictured here. And this only scratches the nappy surface of what is out there. The key with wearing flannel is playful insouciance. Don’t try to match it. Just pick the patterns with colors that spark your imagination and then pair with solid elements. Pants and jackets are obvious partners, but flannel begs for a layered look as well. So T-shirts, turtlenecks and even polos are welcome to peak out from underneath. Of course, a vest or sweater is an appropriate cover to the plaid, which will nonetheless make its statement loud and clear.

Plaids aren’t the sole purview of flannels (suits use the pattern and plaids woven into cotton madras are a standard for summer wear), but what sets this fabric apart is its endearing combination of warmth and softness, which is so welcome this time of year. The modified nap of flannel is what provides those qualities. It traps air and makes for a smooth connection to the skin. The effect is so striking that the original flannels were made with wool, a material usually associated with being scratchy. Carding the fibers (pulling them apart and laying the strands parallel) is a defining process. By hand it’s labor-intensive, but the industrial revolution in Wales mechanized flannel in the eighteenth century. In America, its sturdy qualities made it synonymous with a working man’s textile. But you don’t have to be Paul Bunyon to rock this look.