The Art and History of the Casual Shirt by David Hellqvist

When it comes to getting dressed, shirts are often considered to be an essential, a basic if you like. Of course the right fit is important, but depending on the fabric, this often ordinary garment can become quite extraordinary. It’s this thought that has compelled us to expand our range of shirts. We are fabric innovators: obsessive about the feel and the drape of a fabric, as well as the look, so what better place for us to focus our energies than on the shirt.

There are many staples out there, especially ones on offer for men looking to update their wardrobes. Staples have become a buzz word of late; a few seasons ago there was even a fashion trend based on the notion of blending in with others. ‘Normcore’ managed to, somehow, convince confirmed fashionistas that it was ‘cool’ to look like everyone else. Ironically, that sentiment is the complete opposite to the definition of fashion as a discourse for individual and artistic expression. Nevertheless, on trend or not, staples will continue to form the foundation of your wardrobe. Only limelight-desperate bloggers layer statement piece upon statement piece. For the rest of us there must be an element of sartorial sobriety in-between these fashion totems. Cue basics.

If you look closer at the concept of staple garments, they are obviously not designed to stand out. Naturally, fur coats are not staples, neither are western shirts, for example. These kind of garments are, if you like, bonus pieces that help paint your own personal picture of who you are. No, staples are plain and, well, basic. They go with most things because the fit is neutral and the colour palette is sombre. Neutral and sombre can be perceived as negative words, meaning bland and beige, but a good staple goes above and beyond. What it lacks in ‘personality’ it makes up for in quality and fit. It’s even more important for these wardrobe pillars to be well-made out of the best possible fabrics then their statement cousins. If it’s not impressing you with its durable fit and supreme fabric after a year of tough wear, what’s the odds you’ll keep that white cotton shirt?

Shirts, especially the causal and relaxed type, are perhaps the ultimate staple. They are versatile, they can be worn dressed up and down – just tuck it in or leave it out. Do you button all the way up? If not, how many do you leave unbuttoned? Do you use the button-down buttons? Some clever physiologist could write books on how you wear your shirt and what it says about you. Stripes or plain, rounded or cutaway collar?

The shirt, as a garment, goes way back. The first shirt-like pieces found by archaeologists has been dated to c. 3000 BC. That’s pretty old, arguably beyond ‘vintage’. But it does reinforce the point about the shirt’s historical importance. Skip forward almost 5,000 years and shirts were mostly worn by men as an underwear garment. It wasn’t until the late 19th century, early 20th century that the shirt as we know it today was developed. Back then, in deep Victorian times, it filled a very formal purpose; men didn’t leave their houses unless dressed in a suit, shirt, tie and a h

Like so many other things, it all changed after the Second World War. The strict uniform codes of the army infiltrated civilian life as de-mobbing soldiers wore uniform garments in the casual setting of everyday life after the war had finished. Add to that the birth of pop culture in the 1960s, and the resulting concept of youth rebellion, and all of a sudden casualwear was the sartorial modus operandi for ‘normal’ people.

A few years back I interviewed British designer Martine Rose. It was for book we produced on the SS13 men’s season and the first ever London Collections Men. The entire interview with Martine was about shirting. I’ve always liked how she distorts classic shirts, imagine a ‘banker’ shirt with high tech detailing, such as her signature pocket detail in welded plastic. The result was a fashion forward take on a very classic item. We spoke about what makes shirts so versatile:

“I suppose they’re different because they’ve managed to move with the times, you’ve always been able to update them. Their function stays the same so they’re still traditionally used for the same things but you can easily update them and make them modern. There’s status in a shirt as well, there’s so many underlying impressions that you get from someone wearing a shirt, it’s just a really interesting thing to play with I think. And unlike a jacket, for example, it stays on for longer.” Martine Rose

She makes a valid point; jackets and coats quickly come off once you’re inside, and no-one pays that much attention to your trousers. People are obsessed with shoes and trainers, granted, but that involves you looking down in a very specific way rather than just casually observing someone. When you do, you’re more than likely to spot a casual shirt. Whereas t-shirts and sweatshirts are sometimes too relaxed, a comfortable shirt implies just enough effort has been made. Not only has it been buttoned and, perhaps, ironed – all of it time consuming actions that shows dedication to the cause – but there’s an impressive rigidness to shirts, even the casual ones. Out of all the tops, they have the most authority, they quietly scream of power, be it an outerwear shirt, a suit shirt or a good old grandad shirt.

That power, the shirt’s superiority, has got to do with, I think, the wealth of fabrics that can be used to make a shirt. Again, using tees and sweats as examples, they’re quite limited in terms of what they’re made out of. Whether it’s cotton melange, flannel wool (my personal favourite), washed out cotton or pique, you can create shirts with a distinct purpose based on the fabric. Add to that the myriad of options you have when it comes to the collar, and you can spend all day long putting together fantasy versions of your ultimate shirt. A collarless shirt, button-down, forward point or a standard spread collar with removable collar stays, these all have different purposes and functions in society. The shirt family is wealthy enough to cater for dressed up occasions as well as the mundane tasks of everyday life. But, to me, those shirts are the hero pieces, the casual shirts that takes us through life, comfortable and happy in the notion that we’re wearing a staple garment, which will never go out of fashion.

David is publisher at Document Studios, fashion features editor at Port Magazine and fashion director at Avaunt Magazine.

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