For the current season we have produced our signature, English-made button-down shirt in a hearty American oxford cloth. Who better then, than the endlessly knowledgeable G. Bruce Boyer, to guide us through the transatlantic history of the oxford shirt?
Well, it’s all come full circle. The button-down collared shirt was conceived in Britain, popularised in the USA, and now it’s back on the British side of the Pond again.
And nothing particularly ironic about it, it’s just the way history ebbs and flows. Initially the button-down shirt never caught on in the UK much beyond the polo-playing crowd for whom it was intended. It took a certain Mr. John Brooks [read Brooks Brothers here], who started manufacturing and selling the shirts in New York City in 1896, to popularize it in the States. Other prestigious menswear names such as J. Press started to do a good business in the button-downs, particularly as it came to be manufactured in a sturdy plain-weave cotton known asoxford cloth(another invention originally from Britain), and by the 1940s every campus shop in every town anywhere near an American college or university stocked more oxford button-downs than any other shirt. The thick and durable oxford cloth beauty with the unlined, soft rolled collar in solid white, blue, pink, yellow, and ecru paid the rent.
Tom Wolfe has pointed out in one of his incomparable essays, that from just before mid-20th century to about 1970, any student on any Ivy League campus [he used Yale as an example] where golden American youth were being groomed “in every sense of the word” to rule, five out of every seven undergraduates “could tell whether the button down Oxford-cloth shirt you had on was from Fenn-Feinstein, J. Press, or Brooks Brothers from a single glance …”, so aware were they of the hopelessly microscopic details of styling status brought into play that defined the authentic player.
When American culture filled the gap of World War II destruction after 1945, the button-down, along with denim jeans, penny loafers, and other items of the casual American wardrobe were taken up globally. But then something interesting happened. Somewhere along the line many American manufacturers became enamored of the scientifically enhanced “wrinkle-free” fabrics, and to add a dollop of insult to injury began to use a process called “fusing” – that unsubtle art of glued interlinings – and soon the collars, cuffs, and front plackets of button-downs were as stiff as physics exams. Aficionados of le vrai chose were now finding it harder and harder to find their beloved shirts with the Old School deshabille on the American side of The Pond. Many felt angry, betrayed, and confused.
But, just as things looked their darkest, just when the Italians had all but given up trying to produce a real button-down, and the Americans were being asked by market forces to reinvent their own history, the Brits, gentlemanly nation that they are, graciously overlooked the American mishandling of tea shipments to Boston, and provided the very model of a major button-down with the Drakes imprimatur. The collar is the proper height front and back, with a slightly curved outer edge to sit smoothly over the clavicle bones, the buttons placed for just the right amount of roll.
Drake's has now produced its button-down in a decidedly brawny American cotton oxford cloth (with completely unlined collars and cuffs). And so the Anglo-American bonds of friendship and affection are once again strengthened to the mutual benefit of each and a better world for all.