Expanding a Shirt Wardrobe in the Summertime

Luciano Barbera once said that while you can have too many clothes, you can never have too many shirts. “Shirts are quick to wash and easy to store. Plus, they look great. A man should own as many shirts as he wishes –- the more the better.”

I don’t know if I would go that far, but having more shirts does allow you to play around a bit with a tailored wardrobe. Solid and striped shirts in your basic colors (white and light blue) are great mainstays, but having a few causal options can let you get some versatility out of what you already own. For summer, I like the following:

  • Madras: A lightweight, plain weave cotton that’s known for it’s bright and bold plaids. By tradition, these used to be dyed with vegetable dyes that would bleed in the wash, which in turn would give the shirts a distinctive, blurred look. Today, madras is almost always colorfast (meaning they don’t bleed or fade), which is perhaps lamentable, but I find they still go excellently under cotton or linen sport coats, or even worn on their own with a pair of chinos and some plimsolls. You can find them at O’Connell’s, J. Press, Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, and J. Crew.
  • Linen: I love the look of wrinkled linen, as it adds a casual, carefree touch to clothes that make them look more lived in. Plus, the plant fiber is just so lightweight and breathable, making it ideal on hot days. With the breeze blowing through, you’d hardly known you were wearing a shirt at all. You can find them at Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, and Ledbury. Our advertiser Proper Cloth also can make you something custom from their cotton/ linen blends – which will have the breathability of linen, but won’t wrinkle as much.
  • A dressy chambray: This one is admittedly hard to find. A long time ago, some guys at StyleForum became enamored with a distinctive chambray from the French weaver Simonnot Godard. It had the right mix of white and blue threads to make it a chambray, but was dressy enough to wear with tailored clothing (so not like the workwear chambrays you see everywhere else). At some point, it was found that the cloth has a small percentage of polyester in it, so traditionalists quickly abandoned their stock. I personally still love the fabric, and count it as one of my favorite shirtings. It’s unique without being loud, and something you can wear to the office or outside of it. Today, the closest you can find to those original Simonnot Godard chambrays is this shirt from Ledbury (which is 100% cotton). Otherwise, you can try searching around for various end-on-ends, which is a kind of weave that sometimes yields a vaguely similar look.
  • A washed chambray: More the workwear variety, and perhaps something that’s better in the fall with tweed jackets. In the summer though, I’ve found light blue chambrays to go excellently with casual clothes (leather jackets, chinos, and such). Just find something that’s light enough in color to look like a regular light blue shirt, but has a bit of ruggedness to it so that it’s casual. I like the ones from Chimala and RRL, although the prices are admittedly very dear. For something much more affordable, check out this shirt from Everlane
Thick Flannel Shirts
Over the weekend, Jesse listed this Spring’s Seven “Must Have Or You’ll Die” Essentials. Do you know why? Because he lives in Los Angeles, and in Southern California, the four seasons are: spring, summer, summer with slightly chillier nights (but not by much), and spring with slightly chillier nights (but again, not by much). Dear readers: know that I - as your correspondent in the Bay Area - understand that we’re still solidly in winter. Here in the Bay, it’s still cold enough to need chunky sweaters, heavy coats, and the occasional pair of gloves. 
It’s also useful to have a few thick flannel shirts around. I’ve been wearing mine every once in a while with jeans and a leather jacket, and prefer ones made from heavy, coarse fabrics. My favorite sources so far include:
John Lofgren: A highly underrated and underappreciated workwear label. Really nice, thick fabrics made into shirts with slightly short, vintage-y cuts. Available at John Lofgren’s site directly, but also Self Edge and Bench & Loom (although the last two don’t have woven shirts right now).
Flat Head: A Japanese workwear label that draws a lot of inspiration from American motorcycle and hot rod subcultures. They have two lines of shirts – the mainline, which is slim and shorter fitting, and Glory Park, which is just a touch bigger. Of all my flannels, these are easily my favorite, but they’re expensive. If you don’t mind the price, they’re available at Self Edge and Rivet & Hide.
Five Brother: A genuine workwear label that recently started making slim fitting shirts for the fashion crowd. These are made from vividly colored fabrics with coarse weaves and a dry hand. Of all the companies on this list, Five Brother probably offers the best price to value ratio. You can find them now at Bench & Loom, but in the past, Context and Hickoree’s has also carried them (they will again this fall).
Nigel Cabourn: Always a favorite, but his prices are stratospherically high. If it matters, his flannel shirts are sometimes reversible, although the other side of the one I bought is perhaps too “fuzzy” to realistically use. Still, he has some nice subtle detailing that the other brands don’t offer (unique pocket designs, smoke mother-of-pearl buttons, and extra, extra thick fabrics). Available at Nigel Cabourn’s own website or any of his stockists. If you’re not able to afford those retail prices, you’ll have to trawl Yoox and eBay like me.
RRL: Ralph Lauren’s ranch inspired sub-label. The fabrics on RRL shirts really run the gamut, but in general, they’re typically a bit flimsier than the aforementioned brands (at least when it comes to fall/ winter shirts). On the upside, they can often be found on deep discount (I bought mine for about $75). These are available at Ralph Lauren’s website, and certain niche stockists such as Unionmade and Frans Boone.
The best part about wearing thick flannel shirts? With designers such as Daiki Suzuki and Heidi Slimane incorporating them into last year’s looks, you can simultaneously feel very “aritansal heritage workwear” and “high fashion au courant.” Plus, Rick Owens wears them! The dream of the 90s is alive in menswear. At least until spring comes for the rest of us. 

Thick Flannel Shirts

Over the weekend, Jesse listed this Spring’s Seven “Must Have Or You’ll Die” Essentials. Do you know why? Because he lives in Los Angeles, and in Southern California, the four seasons are: spring, summer, summer with slightly chillier nights (but not by much), and spring with slightly chillier nights (but again, not by much). Dear readers: know that I - as your correspondent in the Bay Area - understand that we’re still solidly in winter. Here in the Bay, it’s still cold enough to need chunky sweaters, heavy coats, and the occasional pair of gloves. 

It’s also useful to have a few thick flannel shirts around. I’ve been wearing mine every once in a while with jeans and a leather jacket, and prefer ones made from heavy, coarse fabrics. My favorite sources so far include:

  • John Lofgren: A highly underrated and underappreciated workwear label. Really nice, thick fabrics made into shirts with slightly short, vintage-y cuts. Available at John Lofgren’s site directly, but also Self Edge and Bench & Loom (although the last two don’t have woven shirts right now).
  • Flat Head: A Japanese workwear label that draws a lot of inspiration from American motorcycle and hot rod subcultures. They have two lines of shirts – the mainline, which is slim and shorter fitting, and Glory Park, which is just a touch bigger. Of all my flannels, these are easily my favorite, but they’re expensive. If you don’t mind the price, they’re available at Self Edge and Rivet & Hide.
  • Five Brother: A genuine workwear label that recently started making slim fitting shirts for the fashion crowd. These are made from vividly colored fabrics with coarse weaves and a dry hand. Of all the companies on this list, Five Brother probably offers the best price to value ratio. You can find them now at Bench & Loom, but in the past, Context and Hickoree’s has also carried them (they will again this fall).
  • Nigel Cabourn: Always a favorite, but his prices are stratospherically high. If it matters, his flannel shirts are sometimes reversible, although the other side of the one I bought is perhaps too “fuzzy” to realistically use. Still, he has some nice subtle detailing that the other brands don’t offer (unique pocket designs, smoke mother-of-pearl buttons, and extra, extra thick fabrics). Available at Nigel Cabourn’s own website or any of his stockists. If you’re not able to afford those retail prices, you’ll have to trawl Yoox and eBay like me.
  • RRL: Ralph Lauren’s ranch inspired sub-label. The fabrics on RRL shirts really run the gamut, but in general, they’re typically a bit flimsier than the aforementioned brands (at least when it comes to fall/ winter shirts). On the upside, they can often be found on deep discount (I bought mine for about $75). These are available at Ralph Lauren’s website, and certain niche stockists such as Unionmade and Frans Boone.

The best part about wearing thick flannel shirts? With designers such as Daiki Suzuki and Heidi Slimane incorporating them into last year’s looks, you can simultaneously feel very “aritansal heritage workwear” and “high fashion au courant.” Plus, Rick Owens wears them! The dream of the 90s is alive in menswear. At least until spring comes for the rest of us. 

At-Home Repairs

Not nearly as cool as Jesse’s repair, but following his post, I thought I’d share these photos from StyleForum member Ghost01. These were recently posted in a thread dedicated to RRL, which as many people know, is Ralph Lauren’s workwear line. RRL was set up in 1993, and is heavily inspired by Ralph Lauren’s private ranch, which he runs with his wife Ricky (hence the name RRL). That means lots of American workwear inspired by country and vintage clothing. You can see the ranch in an interview Oprah once did with Ralph Lauren and his family. (Warning: it’s beautiful). 

Anyway, Ghost01 had an RRL shirt and a pair of jeans that were falling apart. The elbow on the shirt had worn through and there was a hole in the back pocket of the jeans from where his wallet is usually kept. His solution? Patch up both holes, at home using his own sewing skills, with an old RRL pocket square that he had laying around. I think the results look pretty great - a practical solution that’s also in keeping with RRL’s aesthetic. 

The top photo is of Ghost01 in an RRL jacket. That piece hasn’t been repaired, but I’m posting it because I think all three pieces - the jacket, the newly repaired shirt, and the newly repaired jeans - go together quite nicely for a casual look. 

Vintage Leather Belts
I’m not as experienced as Jesse it when it comes to thrifting, but I do enjoy going to thrift stores. When I go, I often like to browse around for vintage leather belts - the thick kind that you wear with jeans. One of the nice things about buying second-hand is that you can get things with a bit more character. With good leather, you’ll often get something that has aged beautifully. 
Take the above belt, for example. It’s from a webpage Mister Freedom made for their “Ranchero shirts,” which are lovely, but the star of the photograph - at least for me - is the belt sitting in the middle. The variation in the coloring, the scuffing, and the scored design give the belt a certain appeal that modern workwear brands only imitate.
You can find such belts if you hunt around enough. Just visit good thrift stores or flea markets (in the Bay Area, I’d highly recommend Antiques by the Bay, which happens on the first Sunday of every month. Not only do they have a few vendors that sell vintage belts, but there are a ton of other great booths for vintage wares as well). There’s also eBay, of course, but that gets slightly dicier. Vintage leather goods can be of varying quality - either because of the quality of the leather itself, or because of how the item was taken care of throughout the years. Without being able to handle the belt, and without a brand name to go off of, it can be difficult to know what you’re looking at. Still, some of these are quite affordable, so if you get stuck with something less than ideal, it’s at least not a big loss.
The alternative is to buy something new, but from a brand that takes it inspiration from old, vintage designs. RRL and Levi’s Vintage Clothing often have tooled or painted belts that are made to look like they’re from the mid-century. You can find them at workwear-focused stores such as Hickoree’s and Unionmade. They won’t have the kind of patina that an authentic vintage belt will carry, but they’re often still quite handsome. With enough wear, you might get it to look as nice as the one Christophe Loiron (owner of Mister Freedom) photographed above (though, probably not, because that belt looks really awesome). 
(Photo via Christophe Loiron)

Vintage Leather Belts

I’m not as experienced as Jesse it when it comes to thrifting, but I do enjoy going to thrift stores. When I go, I often like to browse around for vintage leather belts - the thick kind that you wear with jeans. One of the nice things about buying second-hand is that you can get things with a bit more character. With good leather, you’ll often get something that has aged beautifully. 

Take the above belt, for example. It’s from a webpage Mister Freedom made for their “Ranchero shirts,” which are lovely, but the star of the photograph - at least for me - is the belt sitting in the middle. The variation in the coloring, the scuffing, and the scored design give the belt a certain appeal that modern workwear brands only imitate.

You can find such belts if you hunt around enough. Just visit good thrift stores or flea markets (in the Bay Area, I’d highly recommend Antiques by the Bay, which happens on the first Sunday of every month. Not only do they have a few vendors that sell vintage belts, but there are a ton of other great booths for vintage wares as well). There’s also eBay, of course, but that gets slightly dicier. Vintage leather goods can be of varying quality - either because of the quality of the leather itself, or because of how the item was taken care of throughout the years. Without being able to handle the belt, and without a brand name to go off of, it can be difficult to know what you’re looking at. Still, some of these are quite affordable, so if you get stuck with something less than ideal, it’s at least not a big loss.

The alternative is to buy something new, but from a brand that takes it inspiration from old, vintage designs. RRL and Levi’s Vintage Clothing often have tooled or painted belts that are made to look like they’re from the mid-century. You can find them at workwear-focused stores such as Hickoree’s and Unionmade. They won’t have the kind of patina that an authentic vintage belt will carry, but they’re often still quite handsome. With enough wear, you might get it to look as nice as the one Christophe Loiron (owner of Mister Freedom) photographed above (though, probably not, because that belt looks really awesome). 

(Photo via Christophe Loiron)

It’s On Sale: Shirts
Want some shirts? There are a ton of places right now with deep discounts.
The new Amazon-owned e-tailer East Dane has Gant Rugger shirts starting at $37.50. The fit tends to be a bit more hip, and perhaps better suited to younger customers, but they’re of good quality. 
More traditionally, there’s Brooks Brothers, where there are mainline shirts starting at $40 and Black Fleece shirts starting at $70. 
Ralph Lauren also has a promotion going on right now, where you can save $20, $50, or $150 depending on how much you spend. The promotion applies to their sale section, where there are shirts for as low as $25 or so. Probably good to avoid stuff with the pony logo on the chest, and note that “classic fit” is their traditionally cut model, while “custom fit” is their slim version. Folks interested in workwear might also want to check out the RRL section.
Similarly, Macy’s has a bunch of Ralph Lauren shirts on sale. Unfortunately, the site doesn’t state whether each model is “classic” or “custom” fit, but there are some handsome options. I think this looks pretty good. 
J. Crew is offering an extra 40% off final sale items with the code FUNSALE. Included are some of their shirts, though you have to hunt around. 
TM Lewin, always a good go-to for business appropriate shirts, is offering four shirts for $128, and clearance models for $32 each. Shipping is free, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better deal if you wear a traditional coat and tie. 
(Pictured above: A plaid Ralph Lauren shirt)

It’s On Sale: Shirts

Want some shirts? There are a ton of places right now with deep discounts.

  • The new Amazon-owned e-tailer East Dane has Gant Rugger shirts starting at $37.50. The fit tends to be a bit more hip, and perhaps better suited to younger customers, but they’re of good quality. 
  • More traditionally, there’s Brooks Brothers, where there are mainline shirts starting at $40 and Black Fleece shirts starting at $70. 
  • Ralph Lauren also has a promotion going on right now, where you can save $20, $50, or $150 depending on how much you spend. The promotion applies to their sale section, where there are shirts for as low as $25 or so. Probably good to avoid stuff with the pony logo on the chest, and note that “classic fit” is their traditionally cut model, while “custom fit” is their slim version. Folks interested in workwear might also want to check out the RRL section.
  • Similarly, Macy’s has a bunch of Ralph Lauren shirts on sale. Unfortunately, the site doesn’t state whether each model is “classic” or “custom” fit, but there are some handsome options. I think this looks pretty good. 
  • J. Crew is offering an extra 40% off final sale items with the code FUNSALE. Included are some of their shirts, though you have to hunt around. 
  • TM Lewin, always a good go-to for business appropriate shirts, is offering four shirts for $128, and clearance models for $32 each. Shipping is free, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better deal if you wear a traditional coat and tie. 

(Pictured above: A plaid Ralph Lauren shirt)

Real People: Wearing One Label

If I had to stick to one clothing brand my entire life, it would undoubtedly be Ralph Lauren. From its mainstream Blue Label to its contemporary Black Label to its old timey RRL, you can get almost anything you want from just one brand. Plus, the company just designs such great clothes.

Julien from the Netherlands wears Polo Ralph Lauren and RRL almost exclusively. For winter, he layers things such as chunky, patterned sweaters underneath work jackets and leather jackets. Workwear chinos and cargo pants get broken out often, but so does the occasional pair of corduroys. On his feet are rugged workboots, which look like they’ve been taken care of, but also have the scuffing and patina necessary to make them look not too new.

Of course, it helps that he has a great looking beard and a dog the size of a small bear, and that he lives in what appears to be paradise (that’s Rotterdam, by the way). This past year, I’ve been buying an unusual amount of RRL for a guy who has a blog called Die, Workwear!, but given that I’m a skinny, hairless grad student living with a whiny cat in the yuppie part of Oakland, I doubt I look half as good.

In any case, Julien is an oil painter and a maker of watchstraps. If you’re interested in checking out his work, you can visit his website.

Getting a Good Grey Sweatshirt
Every fall season, I can’t seem to stop myself from buying more sweaters, but the one I keep coming back to, year after year, is my reliable grey sweatshirt. For casual use with chinos and jeans, I can’t think of anything better. It’s low-maintenance, sporty, and if the fit is right, can look pretty great.
My favorite sweatshirts are made by Japanese companies such as Buzz Rickson, The Real McCoys, and Strike Gold. These brands specialize in mid-century reproductions, and often use older production techniques (these techniques don’t lend any special advantage, they’re just neat if you care about such things). They’re also thicker and denser than most other sweatshirts on the market. You can find them at them at Self Edge, Blue in Green, Superdenim, and Bench & Loom.
Other really great companies include Archival Clothing, WTAPs, Levis Vintage Clothing, Sunspel, Reigning Champ, Battenwear, Loopwheeler, RRL, and Velva Sheen. Many of these will have their own unique selling points. Archival Clothing, for example, has theirs made in Portland, Oregon by the old-school American manufacturer Columbiaknit, while Levis Vintage Clothing often draws from Levis’ extensive in-house archive. These models tend to be quite expensive, however, so if you want something more affordable, check out Champion, American Giant, Land’s End, Uniqlo, and J. Crew. The last three hold sales pretty often, so you can knock the price down further if you exercise some patience.
Naturally, many people may be wondering what’s the difference between a ~$150 sweatshirt and something that you can find for ~$50. Some of this will be in the detailing, such as some having loopwheeled constructions (which again, are just old ways of making these garments). Some of this will be in the quality of the materials. My Buzz Rickson sweatshirt, for example, is nice and dense, and doesn’t stretch out as easily as the one I bought from J. Crew. It also has a “vintage” fit that I like, which is slightly boxy and short. I think it goes well with the kind of boots, jeans, and jackets I like to wear. 
In the end, however, you just need to find something that fits you well, and works for your budget. Not all sweatshirts have to be dumpy, and not all nice ones have to cost an arm and a leg. If you find that your sweatshirt stretches out easily, just throw it in the wash and put it in the dryer after each wear. It should shrink back to shape. The color might dull from being in the dryer so much, but … it’s a sweatshirt. These look better beat up. 

Getting a Good Grey Sweatshirt

Every fall season, I can’t seem to stop myself from buying more sweaters, but the one I keep coming back to, year after year, is my reliable grey sweatshirt. For casual use with chinos and jeans, I can’t think of anything better. It’s low-maintenance, sporty, and if the fit is right, can look pretty great.

My favorite sweatshirts are made by Japanese companies such as Buzz Rickson, The Real McCoys, and Strike Gold. These brands specialize in mid-century reproductions, and often use older production techniques (these techniques don’t lend any special advantage, they’re just neat if you care about such things). They’re also thicker and denser than most other sweatshirts on the market. You can find them at them at Self Edge, Blue in Green, Superdenim, and Bench & Loom.

Other really great companies include Archival Clothing, WTAPs, Levis Vintage Clothing, Sunspel, Reigning Champ, Battenwear, Loopwheeler, RRL, and Velva Sheen. Many of these will have their own unique selling points. Archival Clothing, for example, has theirs made in Portland, Oregon by the old-school American manufacturer Columbiaknit, while Levis Vintage Clothing often draws from Levis’ extensive in-house archive. These models tend to be quite expensive, however, so if you want something more affordable, check out Champion, American Giant, Land’s EndUniqlo, and J. Crew. The last three hold sales pretty often, so you can knock the price down further if you exercise some patience.

Naturally, many people may be wondering what’s the difference between a ~$150 sweatshirt and something that you can find for ~$50. Some of this will be in the detailing, such as some having loopwheeled constructions (which again, are just old ways of making these garments). Some of this will be in the quality of the materials. My Buzz Rickson sweatshirt, for example, is nice and dense, and doesn’t stretch out as easily as the one I bought from J. Crew. It also has a “vintage” fit that I like, which is slightly boxy and short. I think it goes well with the kind of boots, jeans, and jackets I like to wear. 

In the end, however, you just need to find something that fits you well, and works for your budget. Not all sweatshirts have to be dumpy, and not all nice ones have to cost an arm and a leg. If you find that your sweatshirt stretches out easily, just throw it in the wash and put it in the dryer after each wear. It should shrink back to shape. The color might dull from being in the dryer so much, but … it’s a sweatshirt. These look better beat up. 

The Occasional Henley

So lately, I’ve been wearing this outfit pretty often on weekends – a white t-shirt, brown leather jacket, pair of raw jeans, and either sneakers or brown leather boots. It’s an incredibly simple thing to put together and requires very little maintenance. No ironing, no dry cleaning, and no worrying if I’ll stain my t-shirts (as they’re quite cheap to replace).

Wearing the same thing often can be a bit boring though, so sometimes I’ve been swapping out the white t-shirt for a henley. Henleys are pullover shirts with rounded collars and short, buttoned plackets at the front. In the mid-century, they were sometimes know as Wallace Beery because of their association with the 20th-century actor, who was sometimes seen wearing the style on-screen. Some men understandably feel that henleys look too much like long underwear, while others who are old enough to remember the 1990s might think they’re a bit too “Eddie Bauer.” However, if worn with the right kind of clothes, I think they can look pretty good. I wear mine with jeans and leather jackets, but in the photos above, you can see Fok from StyleForum wearing his alone, and Brett from Viberg Boots wearing one underneath a cardigan.

You can find henleys at any number of places. Wings + Horns, RRL, Archival Clothing, Schiesser Revival, and Reigning Champ make them almost every season. Certain stores, such as Blue in Green, Unionmade, and Cultizm also have wide selections, and now that J Crew carries Homespun Knitwear, there should be a decent version in almost every American mall. Additionally, folks looking for a deal might want to visit Bench & Loom. They have a ton of great stuff on clearance right now (though not everything is listed in their sale section, so you’ll want to click around). Included are some henleys starting at $56

Mine are designed by Nigel Cabourn and made by Merz b. Schwanen. They have some vintage-reproduction detailing that I really like, but this particular model is hard to find nowadays (it’s from an old season). Retail is expensive, but like with everything, if you wait for the right sale or scour eBay, you can pick one up for a fraction of the price (I paid about $100-125 for mine). Merz b. Schwanen also makes a wide range of henleys that they’ve designed (here’s one on sale).

I admit, I don’t wear my henleys often, but it’s nice to have a little variety in the dresser drawer when I want to (slightly) deviate from my weekend uniform. 

The Problem with Labeling
Pete posted a great excerpt yesterday from a recent New Yorker article about the relevancy of country-of-origin labels in the modern world. For clothing production these days, wool can be sourced from Australia, and then sent to Scotland to be spun into yarn, Ireland to be woven into fabric, and Italy to be “finished.” And that’s just for the fabric. The trimmings, such as felts and canvassing, can have their own global production chains, and all these “ingredients” can then be sent to one country (say, China) for most of the assembly, and then another (say, England) for the rest. The companies who do such work, by the way, can be Japanese-owned British firms with Chinese workers. In the end, does a “made in England” label really mean anything?
Consumer Prejudices
The article made me think of a rich area of research about the effects of such labels on consumer behavior. The most famous (or at least the most cited) study was done in 1965 by Robert Schooler. He took a sample of 200 students and had them evaluate several products, all of which were identical except in one way: they had (fictitious) country-of-origin labels. So, for example, some of the things he had students evaluate were swatches of the same beige fabric - medium weave, 80% cotton and 20% linen. Again, all identical, except one was labeled “made in Guatemala,” one “made in Mexico,” one “made in Costa Rica,” and one “made in El Salvador.” As you can probably guess, the students were biased by their own prejudices and saw differences in the fabrics that weren’t actually there. In this case, fabrics believed to be from Guatemala and Mexico were evaluated as being higher-quality than those from Costa Rica and El Salvador.
Schooler’s study launched an entire field of research, one that has been on-going for over forty years. All basically confirm his finding: that country-of-origin labels often bias people’s evaluations and are loaded with national stereotypes. There have been some refinements to the theory (mostly on issues regarding direction, strength, and generalizability of such biases), but they more or less say the same thing. Folks interested in reading more about these findings can check out this literature review by Keith Dinnie.
Do Country-of-Origin Labels Tell You About Quality?
Here’s the problem: many stereotypes have at their center a kernel of truth. That’s what makes them so socially “sticky.” It’s true that there are a ton of low-quality clothes produced in China and that many high-end ones produced in Western Europe. At the same time, I have many Chinese-made garments - such as sweaters by RRL and Phillip Lim, as well as outerwear by Nanamica - that are much nicer than many Western-European-made things. Country-of-origin tags are sometimes helpful in determining quality, but one shouldn’t read the whole story off of a label (especially when the garment is right there in front of you, and you can look at much more real and reliable dimensions of quality). Just because something was made in China doesn’t automatically mean that it’s bad (or, frankly, if it says it was made in Italy, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t made in China). 
The cynic in me wants to believe that such labels are just ways retailers seek a competitive edge and manufacturers look for protection. Maybe so, maybe not, but with the kind of highly-fragmented, complex, global production chains that exist nowadays,* the New Yorker article asks a good question: do these labels even mean anything anymore?
* The New York Times had a good article many years ago about the fragmented production chain involved in the manufacturing of iPods, and it talks about which parts of the chain produce the most value (thus, are most worth trying to keep domestic). Spoiler alert: it’s not manufacturing.
(Note, this controversial post obviously doesn’t reflect the opinion of Jesse or Pete, just my own. For what it’s worth, however, it was made in America.)

The Problem with Labeling

Pete posted a great excerpt yesterday from a recent New Yorker article about the relevancy of country-of-origin labels in the modern world. For clothing production these days, wool can be sourced from Australia, and then sent to Scotland to be spun into yarn, Ireland to be woven into fabric, and Italy to be “finished.” And that’s just for the fabric. The trimmings, such as felts and canvassing, can have their own global production chains, and all these “ingredients” can then be sent to one country (say, China) for most of the assembly, and then another (say, England) for the rest. The companies who do such work, by the way, can be Japanese-owned British firms with Chinese workers. In the end, does a “made in England” label really mean anything?

Consumer Prejudices

The article made me think of a rich area of research about the effects of such labels on consumer behavior. The most famous (or at least the most cited) study was done in 1965 by Robert Schooler. He took a sample of 200 students and had them evaluate several products, all of which were identical except in one way: they had (fictitious) country-of-origin labels. So, for example, some of the things he had students evaluate were swatches of the same beige fabric - medium weave, 80% cotton and 20% linen. Again, all identical, except one was labeled “made in Guatemala,” one “made in Mexico,” one “made in Costa Rica,” and one “made in El Salvador.” As you can probably guess, the students were biased by their own prejudices and saw differences in the fabrics that weren’t actually there. In this case, fabrics believed to be from Guatemala and Mexico were evaluated as being higher-quality than those from Costa Rica and El Salvador.

Schooler’s study launched an entire field of research, one that has been on-going for over forty years. All basically confirm his finding: that country-of-origin labels often bias people’s evaluations and are loaded with national stereotypes. There have been some refinements to the theory (mostly on issues regarding direction, strength, and generalizability of such biases), but they more or less say the same thing. Folks interested in reading more about these findings can check out this literature review by Keith Dinnie.

Do Country-of-Origin Labels Tell You About Quality?

Here’s the problem: many stereotypes have at their center a kernel of truth. That’s what makes them so socially “sticky.” It’s true that there are a ton of low-quality clothes produced in China and that many high-end ones produced in Western Europe. At the same time, I have many Chinese-made garments - such as sweaters by RRL and Phillip Lim, as well as outerwear by Nanamica - that are much nicer than many Western-European-made things. Country-of-origin tags are sometimes helpful in determining quality, but one shouldn’t read the whole story off of a label (especially when the garment is right there in front of you, and you can look at much more real and reliable dimensions of quality). Just because something was made in China doesn’t automatically mean that it’s bad (or, frankly, if it says it was made in Italy, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t made in China). 

The cynic in me wants to believe that such labels are just ways retailers seek a competitive edge and manufacturers look for protection. Maybe so, maybe not, but with the kind of highly-fragmented, complex, global production chains that exist nowadays,* the New Yorker article asks a good question: do these labels even mean anything anymore?

* The New York Times had a good article many years ago about the fragmented production chain involved in the manufacturing of iPods, and it talks about which parts of the chain produce the most value (thus, are most worth trying to keep domestic). Spoiler alert: it’s not manufacturing.

(Note, this controversial post obviously doesn’t reflect the opinion of Jesse or Pete, just my own. For what it’s worth, however, it was made in America.)

Three Types of Chinos

Khaki chinos are not, as they say, just khaki chinos. Though they’re always casual, they come in different flavors of informality, and it’s good to be sensitive to these differences when you’re choosing the right pair to wear for the day.

I think of chinos as being of three varieties. The first is your standard casual pair, which is what you most commonly find in shopping malls. These are distinguished by visible stitching on the inseams and outseams (the seams going up and down both sides of your legs). They’re also often made from cheaper materials, sit lower on your hips, and sometimes feature some kind of “wash” or “distressing.” That means they look a bit more beaten up – faded around the lap and slightly frayed along the pockets and leg openings. These, in my opinion, are best worn with casual shirts, such as those made from a rougher cloth (e.g. oxford) or feature bold patterns (e.g. bright madras, plaid flannels). They’re also fine with things such as t-shirts, polos, cardigans, and sneakers. If the length of your shirt permits, you can wear it untucked. They’re less optimal, however, with dressier shirts – such as shirts made from smooth poplin, have no chest pocket, and feature French fronts. Those would be too dressy for this kind of pants.  

Your second type is the workwear variety, which differ from the first category in their material and fit. Workwear chinos are made from tougher twill cottons and allowed to fit differently. Whereas traditional men’s pants should fit in a certain way, workwear chinos can have a bit more rumple in the leg line and seat (though they don’t necessarily have to). In short, these should feel and look a bit rougher. They are, after all, supposed to express a certain workwear sensibility. Such chinos can be worn with chambray shirts, plaid flannels, rugged outerwear, and heavy boots. In a way, some of the things you can wear here aren’t too different than what you can wear with standard casual chinos, but the effects will be different. A chambray shirt worn with RRL Officer Chinos or Left Field’s, for example, will look very different than if it’s paired with something from J Crew.   

Finally, the last type is what I’d call “dress chinos.” As oxymoronic as that sounds, dress chinos are distinguished by hidden stitching along the inseams and outseams. They sit higher on the hips, are made from nicer materials, and are generally made to much higher quality standards. They also typically come “unfinished,” meaning the lengths aren’t pre-hemmed. These are arguably the most versatile. They can be worn with casual shirts such as oxford cloth button-downs or proper dress shirts; long sleeve polos or cardigans; traditional sweaters of almost any variety; and even sport coats and ties. They shouldn’t be worn, however, with cheap, beat-up t-shirts or rugged outerwear, such as motorcycle jackets.

The photos above demonstrate good uses of chinos. Something like this, on the other hand, is a bit too incongruous, at least to my eye. It would be better, in my opinion, if the gentleman had worn dress chinos, a pale blue shirt, and some brown calf derbys. Or he could have ditched the double-breasted and tie, and picked a more casual shirt to wear with his very-casual chinos and suede chukkas. As is, the look is too formal up top and too informal down bottom. To be sure, clashing formal and informal things can make a very fashionable statement, but if one wanted to dress more harmoniously and less conspicuously, it would be good to be sensitive to the different kinds of sensibilities garments have, and then pair them accordingly. For chinos, that would be standard casual, workwear, and dress.