For the Boys

by Tracy James

On the newsstands and grocery aisle now is GQ’s Style Guide, always a great seasonal resource for men. It got me thinking about the style issues most frequently presented to me by my male clients, so I thought I would cover a few of those topics in a series of posts.

Part I: A History of the Dress Shirt

Many questions revolve around dress shirts - what collar/cuff is best for what occasion, who designs the best shirts, what fabric or pattern should I look for, etc. A majority of men in the US have never custom designed a dress shirt.  However, a century ago, all shirts were custom made to the customer's specifications. You would walk into a store like J.C. Penney, peruse fabrics, have measurements taken, and 6 weeks later, a shirt would show up made just for you.

Subsequently, retailers figured out they could save a lot of money by making large runs of limited patterns in a handful of pre-designed sizes.  Customers could walk into a store, get a decent approximate fit, and have instant gratification. This significantly dropped costs and, within a generation or two, most men had no idea that there was any other way to order shirts.

In fact, even the term “dress shirt,” which signifies a more formal pattern in contrast to a “sports shirt,” which is a more casual fabric and style, only became necessary with the rise of the t-shirt as everyday clothing.  Our great grandparents would have called a dress shirt nothing more than “a shirt.”

This created an interesting cultural split in society.  Those who had sufficient resources or the sartorial culture in their family continued to have their dress shirts custom designed, tailored, and made specifically for them.  Those who lacked these resources believed that shirts were something you bought off a rack from a local discount retailer.  Nowhere is this split more evident than if you walk into a shirt maker’s showroom floor with someone who doesn’t know the process.  I’ve heard several friends remark about great clothiers, “I stopped in once but didn’t see anything I liked, so I left.”....having no idea that for every one dress shirt on the showroom floor, there are 100x as many fabrics in the shirting fabric books. The clothing on the racks are mere samples for display purposes.

Up next...Collar & Cuff Styles.