That Enviable Roll

Our reviews of modern oxford cloth button down shirts will come later this week, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share these great photos I found in some old posts at Heavy Tweed Jacket. They were originally taken from 1978 and 1981 issues of Men’s Club (a Japanese men’s style magazine) and feature various New York City businessmen sporting a classic American style of dress. Notice the handsome rolls on the button down collars. These kinds of expressions are a bit rare to see nowadays since many manufacturers make shirts with shorter collar points, resulting in something like this.  

The Oxford Cloth Button Down Shirt Series, Part I

If I could only wear one shirt style for the rest of my life, it would be, without a doubt, the oxford cloth button down (or as it’s also known to style enthusiasts, the OCBD). The OCBD is perhaps our country’s greatest sartorial contribution. As the story goes, it has its beginnings in 1896, when Brooks Brothers' John E. Brooks (who was the grandson to the founder Henry Sands Brooks) saw polo players in England wearing shirts with two buttons at the front to secure their collar tips. This prevented their collars from flapping into their face while they were playing. Men had many ways of securing collars at this time of course – collar pins, wire contraptions, and heavy starch, for example – but this was the most practical for sporting purposes.

John E. Brooks was quite enamored with the invention, so he sent a sample back to his main store in New York City with instructions to have the collar copied exactly, down to every last measurement. In 1900, the company put the new collar style on their ready-made sport shirts. These were called “polo shirts” for their polo-inspired collars. Not too long after, the polo collar was put on white cotton cheviots (also known in the trade as “oxford”) and the American OCBD was born. 

The shirt was almost an instant classic. By 1915, it was a fashion staple for men at almost every East Coast college, and by mid-century, it spread West. Bob Newhart named his first record album after them. Politicians wore them while kissing babies. Style icons Paul Newman, Miles Davis, and Gianni Agnelli were all regularly seen in them. They became something of a symbol of all that was good: casualness, youth, education, trustworthiness, dependability, sport, and professionalism. They were something a man could wear in the country or city, in sport or business, on weekdays or weekends. 

Unfortunately, the OCBD has been modernized, and a lot of what enthusiasts found charming about the original version has mostly been strangled out. At the heart of this transformation is the collar. The original collars had long points and were made without any interlining. This resulted in a very unique, soft roll that would change depending on the wearer’s position, movement, and even the way he happened to tie his tie that day. It was asymmetrical, wrinkly, and frankly even a bit messy looking. But therein lies the charm. These days, most button-down collars are lined (some heavily) so they look more “controlled” and “perfected.” Many also have shorter collar points. Some are so short that there’s no roll at all when the tips are buttoned; the points just lay flat against the body, like a regular point collar with two buttons sticking out. The death knell, I think, was the introduction of the non-iron oxford cloth, which lacks any of the individual expression, casual ease, and lived-in look that made the original oxford charming. The combined effect of all these things is shirts that look a bit lifeless. As one of my favorite blogs, Heavy Tweed Jacket, once wrote of them, “one might say that contemporary shirts […] are almost too well-made.”

Indeed, few people make the original OCBD like they used to, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great options still worth buying. And the OCBD is still one of the most versatile shirts one can own. It’s something you can wear underneath rustic tweeds, navy blazers, softly tailored suits, or fuzzy sweaters. You can even just wear it alone with a pair of trousers and some loafers. A blue semi-spread collar shirt is arguably just as useful, but I’ve never worn one that has brought a smile to my face like a good OCBD. There’s just something about that collar roll and traditional American spirit.

So as an ode to my favorite shirt, I thought I’d do a series of posts on OCBDs. A few friends have generously lent me their vintage Brooks Brothers shirts, which I’ll take pictures of and describe, so people can see how the “genuine articles” have evolved over time. I’ll also do a quick review of something around ten or so different OCBDs, at every price point, so people can figure out who they can turn to in case they haven’t yet settled on a favorite maker.

Get ready for some OCBD adulation. 

Mauve, Flannel, and Tweed

Last fall, I wrote a post about other shirts readers might want to consider after they’ve built a solid foundation of light blues and whites. The softer shades of pink and lilac, for example, can be easily worn underneath navy or grey jackets for a livelier look, and ecru adds something interesting without straying too far from white. I also like striped shirts in brown, grey, or green, so long as the shirts aren’t dominated by those colors, and not combined with similar trousers (e.g. no mid-grey striped shirts with mid-grey wool trousers).

Well, add mauve to that list. I recently found the two photos you see above – the first from Heavy Tweed Jacket and the second from Luciano Barbera’s blog. A warm tweed sport coat combined with a comfortable pair of grey flannel trousers is nothing new, but when you swap out the standard light blue shirt for a striped mauve, I think it becomes a slightly more interesting look. These can be worn with your standard fall and winter ties, such as the ancient madders and woolens you see above, and the warm tones all around can be brought out through a pair of shell cordovan shoes made from Horween’s #8 leather.

Since seeing the two photos, I’ve been looking for a nice, striped mauve shirt for myself, but not with much luck. Light pinks and lilacs are easy, but this very specific shade of mauve seems elusive. The one place I found was Cottonwork, who has a version of it here. Cottonwork tells me that there’s a very subtle weaving pattern to the material, which is only visible on close inspection. Alternatively, they have this plain weave, but it’s in a slightly cooler shade of purple. I’m thinking about getting the first material made into a semi-spread collar shirt with a French placket and no pocket, precisely to wear with things such as tweed jackets and grey flannel trousers.

Note, Cottonwork is an advertiser of ours, but before becoming so, I was a customer (and fan) of theirs for a quite a while. Of the five online made-to-measure shirt operations I’ve tried, I found theirs to be the best. Their shirts fit me better and were more nicely constructed (e.g. higher stitch count, straighter seams, nicer interlinings, etc). You can create a custom shirt through them by submitting your measurement online, or by sending them your best fitting shirt and asking for it to be copied. To read about how to take advantage of custom shirt programs, you can read my series on the topic here.  

One of my favorite blogs, Heavy Tweed Jacket, has a habit of long hiatuses wherein he takes down his content completely. Luckily, he’s back, posting pictures of Secretary of State Dean Atcheson in three-piece tweed suits. Which is tremendous.

One of my favorite blogs, Heavy Tweed Jacket, has a habit of long hiatuses wherein he takes down his content completely. Luckily, he’s back, posting pictures of Secretary of State Dean Atcheson in three-piece tweed suits. Which is tremendous.

Cable Car Clothiers, Summer 1983 (at Heavy Tweed Jacket)
One of my favorite men’s style blogs, Heavy Tweed Jacket, has returned with a vengeance from a long hiatus. More discussion of the collar rolls of Brooks Brothers oxford shirts than you can shake a stick at. RECOMMENDED.

One of my favorite men’s style blogs, Heavy Tweed Jacket, has returned with a vengeance from a long hiatus. More discussion of the collar rolls of Brooks Brothers oxford shirts than you can shake a stick at. RECOMMENDED.