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