How We Roll: Mercer & Sons’ Classic Button-Down Oxford

The rolls of shirt collars are as subtle as the taste of hops in beer and identify their maker just as quickly.

Shirtmakers and merchants distinguish their wares by the stitch along the front of a collar, how far from the placket the collar buttons are attached, the collar’s height and shape, and an arcane host of other quiddities, each less obvious than the previous.

Brooks Brothers’ famous oxford-cloth button-down — what Chipp founder Sid Winston called the single finest piece of merchandise in the world of menswear — has long been prized for the roll of its collar. Purists have widely considered it the most perfectly rolling collar on the market, its curves the most graceful. However, such praise might owe more to historical circumstance than any real analysis of the competition: Brooks Brothers was the first American company to make a button-down collar, in 1896. It’s had the most years of practice, and enough corporate change to lose itself along the way.

Certainly the Brooks button-down is the most iconic, but is it still the best? Mercer & Sons demurely disagrees.

Mercer & Sons began in 1982 in an 18th-century warehouse in Boston with the goal of making a 1950s-style oxford shirt in two-ply pima cotton, with a full cut and classic collar roll. The clothier, which makes what G. Bruce Boyer calls an “old-fashioned button-down, the way they used to be,” promises a full collar roll of nearly 3.5 inches. “It must be the proper, soft, full roll,” explains David Mercer, who runs the firm. “The look is distinctive and obvious at first glance.” Each of the company’s shirt collars is unlined, unfused, and turned by hand. The rest of the shirt is generously cut — so generously, in fact, that it billows. The shirts are roomy the way boat sails are roomy. Perhaps coincidentally, Mercer & Sons shirts, which start at $95, are made in Yarmouth, an old Maine shipbuilding town near Portland.

According to Mercer, most of the big-name shirtmakers have wandered off-track when it comes to button-downs and their all-important collars. “Twenty five years ago, the good button-down shirt became compromised in quality and sizing,” Mercer says. Roomier fit gave way to less generous, laser-cut silhouettes. Mercer takes exception: “A tight European fit is not flattering to all. Many of us benefit from a little mystery. Form and style follow function, and our fit remains a timeless look that is always in good taste.”

And there’s the issue of collar roll. Most collars are made in ways that increase the ease and speed with which they can be manufactured, resulting in a collar that looks and feels hard and comes apart quickly when laundered. Fabric experts estimate the life of a commercially laundered shirt at between 30 and 50 washings. David Mercer guarantees at least 150 washings of his shirts. In addition to their fine construction, the generous cut puts less stress on fabric and seams.

One might suppose the Mercer & Sons client to be a fussy relic in a grey flannel suit, comfortable in corporate conformity. Closer inspection, however, reveals the exact opposite. Clients come to Mercer & Sons not for uniformity, but personal style. Mercer believes most other shirts stand out only in their inability to stand out. Every line is too clean, every stitch too crisp. “Button placement, in fact all steps of the cutting and sewing process,” he explains, “require an experienced human eye, not a laser beam. Character, a distinctive and comfortable look — that’s what makes for true style. Making the proper button down is an art, not a science. Button placement is by hand, not machine. That’s why experienced seamstresses and cutters are so important. Shirts made in quantity in the best factories often look too perfect.”

The Mercer & Sons shirt is the antithesis of laser-beam precision. Each seam and button is where it is because a human hand put it there with needle and thread. The result is a shirt with as much character as the man wearing it, not one made crisp and clean for a department store shelf. Mercer’s shirts stand in the face of progressive fashion, holding true to traditional style. “Maybe it is old school, even prehistoric,” Mercer says. “But this is the real deal, the quintessential American shirt.” — ANDREW EASTMAN

28 Comments on "How We Roll: Mercer & Sons’ Classic Button-Down Oxford"

  1. Vern Trotter | August 16, 2010 at 6:32 am |

    I noticed about 25 years ago or so the Brooks collars were not the same and the roll was gone. Then I started to wear a bow tie almost all the time so it was not noticed. I only just recently heard of Mercer and plan to order a few of their shirts.

  2. I was going to order some shirts from Mercer but all the talk on his website about his shirts being “generously cut” put me off. I’ve seen a lot of vintage BDs (and suits, trousers, etc.) from the 50s and 60s and none of it is cut “generously;” in fact most of that old stuff is trimmer than the modern equivalent. So where does this billowy = authentic notion comes from?

    And the claim that his tent-like shirts last longer because there’s less strain on the seams seems a bit ridiculous.

  3. WhatAboutTheOtherIvies | August 16, 2010 at 8:27 am |

    Sorry Christian, but you mean Portland not Portsmouth (which is a town in New Hampshire on the Maine border).

  4. WhatAboutTheOtherIvies | August 16, 2010 at 8:28 am |

    Sorry, that should have been addressed to Andrew Eastman (you should know better after spending four years in Hanover!!). Chug!

  5. Mercer makes the very best, in its class, bar none! BB gotta iron collar role is close, but the rest are not worth considering. Some like many RL models actually roll, but in the wrong direction.

    Used to be a problem with sloppy stitching around button holes, but Dave got that fixed, about a year ago.

    Not that it matters, but Mercer is in Yarmouth, Maine. Pretty sure that workshops used to be in US, but are now in Canada. Dave tried to buy one of the last remaining US shirt manufacturing facilities, but couldn’t pull it off, for some reason.

    Another plus is the service that you get from Dave, when you call the 800#. He will knock himself out to be sure that you are happy with your order.

    If you don’t like the generous cut, you are missing out on a real classic. Can’t describe it, but being short and thin, the cut is perfect, for me. I’m pretty sure that Dave will make you a narrower cut, if you want it. Call and ask, the call is free, and if you pass on Mercers, you are missing a great chapter in traditional American wear.

  6. BTW, you may think that boxer shorts are boxer shorts. However, Mercer makes the greatest ones on the market. The waist band is covered with the fabric that the shorts are made out of, and last much longer than the BB ones that I bought for years.

    Although this fine article is about shirts, be sure to check out the screen on the Mercer site on boxers, if you have any interest.

    I have no interest in Mercer, except as a customer. In any business, something ultimately goes wrong. This last Christmas, my wife ordered a shirt like one that another customer ordered. The order got switched.

    Dave followed through relentlessly, paid the shipping, and handled it personally. You can tell a lot about a company, when a mishap occurs.

  7. NaturalShoulder | August 16, 2010 at 10:40 am |

    I am a big fan of the Mercer shirts. I do understand the skepticism about the voluminous cut. I order a small size body than the neck in the slim jim cut. While not close to slim fit, it works well for me. Collar roll is fantastic.

  8. Just out of curiosity: Do the Mercer shirts have the third button on the back of the collar?

  9. Dartmouth '12 | August 16, 2010 at 12:57 pm |

    As a trim college student, I find that billowy large shirts look silly.

    I think Mercer is obviously targeting rotund middle-age men with their talk of “generously cut” shirts. Why I would wear a shirt that looks like a circus tent is beyond me.

  10. Full cut was always the look. Fred Astaire was the skinniest guy in the history of show business (except for Christian Bale in “The Machinist”), and even he wore them full.

    Fortunately today there are plenty of options. Go for Brooks’ slim fit if you don’t mind the lined collar, or have David Mercer make you a slim one.

  11. Richard Meyer | August 16, 2010 at 2:38 pm |

    Chipp founder was SID Winston.

  12. That was my mistake. Thanks.

    Who the hell is Stan?

  13. All this talk of voluminous versus slim can get tedious with a little perspective. So here is some perspective: I have a vintage Brooks, size 16 neck, that has a 50 inch chest at the armholes. A 50 INCH CHEST. My 1960s Gant “Hugger” has a 48 inch chest, which is half an inch slimmer than Brooks’ current slim fit. Believe me those 2 inches make a difference.

    I called up Mercer and spoke to Dave, hoping to get some popovers made. He said he could do a 16 Neck on a body size that would correspond to a size 15, in effect, making the shirt slimmer. It would still be pretty voluminous.

  14. I know you like popovers, Anonymous, but enough to commission custom ones?

    At least they’re not as evil as Wallabees, saddle shoes or Venetian loafers.

  15. I really need to squeeze the trigger on a couple of these. The only thing that I’m hesitant about is the billowy cut. I’m tall and slender (6’4″) and therefore not sure how a Mercer shirt would look on my physique. What is your opinion on this matter, Mr. Christian?

    Thanks for the great post.

  16. I have both slim and full cut.

    Why not?

  17. Can’t wait until I can afford a Mercer shirt. I’m slim, so I’d go with the next body size down, and probably be happy as a clam. I’m looking forward to trying out some of those special features, like the pullover. I have a couple of pullover (i.e., popover) Aloha shirts (used to live in Hawaii), and I love the look and feel–how great it would be to have one in Oxford cloth and wear it with a tie!

    The reason ultra-skinny Fred Astaire always looked good in a full-cut shirt is that he almost never took his jacket off (but take a gander at his solo dance in the engine room scene of “Shall We Dance” for an exception).

  18. Would you mind giving us a description of your physique then, Christian?

  19. e.s. No button in the back of the collar. If you have to have one, ask Dave.

  20. I just ordered my first Mercer shirt the other week. I traded several emails with David concerning fit and he was more than helpful. I ended up ordering a 16 1/2″ collar with a 16″ body which takes 2″ off of both the chest and waist. I think this is going to work well and am looking forward to it showing up in the mail box!

  21. Hilton:


    Also, the Astaire images I’m thinking of show him without a jacket. There’s one in one of the famous menswear books; I leafed through a few but couldn’t find it. I’ll try to look again later.

  22. Jesse Livermore | August 17, 2010 at 6:26 pm |

    Now if only Mercer would start selling a yellow university stripe button down………………..

  23. Andrew Eastman | August 18, 2010 at 9:35 am |

    Per the Portsmouth/Portland mix-up… yes. I meant Portland but wrote Portsmouth. Yarmouth is near Portland, but I used to drive into Maine on weekends during college and always passed through Portsmouth on the way, and have since often confused them. (I was never the navigator on those trips.) Apologies.

  24. Great site overall. Not to be a pedant, but the roomy sail analogy speaks volumes about a lack of sailing savvy. As a cruising and racing sailor for nearly 40 years and a tradition BB dresser for even longer, I would posit that any worthwhile sail is designed and carefully cut to to enable adjustments to the wind conditions. Adjusted for flatness in stiff winds — and left open at the top to spill unneeded air; trimmed to semi-flatness in a moderate breeze, and, finally, with outhaul, cunningham and vang released trimmed to a roomy disposition for light air and downwind runs.

    Maybe that is why I tuck my blousey, ape-armed, old BB oxfords in the back with a deep lateral crease when under a suit so that I don’t look like I’m wearing an old, retired tri-radial spinnaker for a dress shirt. With and oxford and khaki’s, let the spinnaker fly!! And under a shetland, who cares??

  25. Andrew Eastman | August 23, 2010 at 9:14 am |

    A bare tyro sailor, guilty.

  26. I was once a stickler for the pure ivy look. A collar that rolled distinctively was deriguer. In those days Brooks, Sero and Troyguild had it nailed. Sero and Troyguild are gone. Brooks quality is deplorable and the collar roll is inconsistent and impacted by the fabric. Although I restrict buttondowns to when I wear shetlands, Harris tweeds and flannels, the properly rolling buttondown finishes the look with the right amount of casual elegance. These are not 3 button sacks that I wear a bd with. They are 2 buttons with a lot of waist suppression, a ticket pocket and 10 inch side vents. I’m 6’2, long waisted and 160lbs, ringing wet. The standard Mercer body looks ridiculous on me. Over the years David Mercer found a perfect solution. He uses a 16 body ( I have a 161/2 neck) and then cuts it 2 inches slimmer. The result is perfect and his quality control and fabrics are extraordinary. So, if you’re still attached to the right collar roll, call David Mercer. He can solve the shirt volume problem for you.

  27. katzenjammer | January 28, 2014 at 9:51 am |

    Has anyone tried Kamakura? They make a “vintage” off the rack (but it’s small, medium, large sizing, lol) OCBD.

    However, they also have a made-to-measure OCBD for a decent price ($150) – and the turn around is excellent. The material they use is finer than the BB button down of yesteryear.

  28. katzenjammer | January 28, 2014 at 10:34 am |

    Incidentally, also of interest – some of you (or most of you, lol) may know this but O’Connell’s is coming out with what they consider to be the most faithful replica of the old BB oxford cloth button down. A salesperson said it would be out this spring. Might be on the expensive side (the fabric and hand work on collar, etc.).

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