Sunday, April 27, 2008

First principles

Over the next few weeks, I'll be going over some of the basic elements you ought have in your wardrobe. Well, if arraying yourself like a civilized gentleman is of any importance to you.

Today we discuss the buttondown shirt.
Not so long ago, the choice was clear: Brooks Brothers, with some contrarians opting for J. Press. Things aren't quite so clear today, alas.
There are some aspects of the shirt that are nonnegotiable. Primus inter pares is the collar. It must "roll," that is, the collar must have a gentle waviness to it that will accomodate a necktie without changing shape. Like so:
This means it mustn't be so long that it's flopping carelessly, nor so taut that it seems starched. The material should be 100% cotton oxford, or for an extra something pinpoint oxford. The desired colors are white, blue and pink. Maybe yellow, if you're the sort who can pull off tweedy earth tones. Candy stripes (medium blue and brick-red) are appealing if you're a navy-blazer sort or like swanning about in sweaters.

Mint green, heliotrope, peach, etc. are best left to the more advanced sartorialist. You can, maybe, get away with one of these more unorthodox choices, but the man who looks good with a peach shirt is not a man whom heliotrope flatters, etc. For the moment, stay away from the "fun shirts" and plaids. Stock up on the basics first, and then we'll talk.

The maker who has seized the market for the archetypal shirt is Mercer & Sons, basically making the closest thing to old-school shirts you knew and loved. Not q-u-i-t-e the same, but close. A great and particularly reactionary touch I love about them is the number of customization features available. If you place an order with them, these are the ones you want:

1) Gauntlet buttons. The originals from Brooks Brothers never came with these and it was a pain to have the tailor put them in. Much better if they come like this from the factory. This is crucial to keep the sleeve from gapping at the forearm.
2) Button at the back of the collar. The originals from Brooks Brothers used to come with these and it's an even bigger pain to have the tailor put them in. Much better if they come like this from the factory. This keeps the back of your tie from peeping out in an unsightly fashion.
3) Pocketless. The late George Frazier (correctly) inveighed against shirt pockets because the only sort of men who would put anything these are those "who don't know the score." It's a cleaner and more slimming look.
4) Tapering. This is a tough call. IF you wear your shirts under jackets more often than not and IF you're trimmer than most, THEN it's advisable.
5) "Pullover" style. This is VERRRRRRRRY old school. That is, if you are reading this, you're not old enough to remember when this sort of shirt was the standard. Tread carefully.

If you're a frugal and hidebound sort, then your best bet is eBay. The original Brooks Brothers shirts were manufactured so beautifully that they'll last forever. You should live so long. The catch is that you need the O-R-I-G-I-N-A-L Brooks Brothers shirt, and given that the company's been bought and sold more often than a Heisman Trophy winner with substance abuse issues, this makes it hard to determine.

You want the ones that have a white, oblong tag that reads "Brooks Brothers Makers" in a red oval surrounding the size which is always expressed in terms of 15-2 or 16-5 and not 15-32 or 16-35...and NEVER 15-32/33 or 16-35/36. At the bottom of the tag it must read "All Cotton") not "100% Cotton") and also "Made in U.S.A." (See photo above.)

There are also some good variants worth seeking out. Lands' End (pre-buyout) made some amazing shirts in "Royal Oxford" (mind you they'll've shrunk, so look for one size up) and Jos. A. Bank's makes the best affordable approximation of the old Brooks Brothers shirt, should you be adamant about buying new.

-J.

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