My Favorite Shirt: Boyer For Gant

gantcollar

As a follow-up to our last post about Gant, here’s a wonderful meditation on the heyday of campus shops by G. Bruce Boyer. It’s an article he says the brand commissioned from him several years ago; the concept was “my favorite shirt,” and it was ultimately used for a brochure. Below are the highlights, which also serve as a fine follow-up to our recent post about green oxford cloth.

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My Favorite Shirt
By G. Bruce Boyer
Excerpted from an article commissioned by Gant

The hours I spent in our local campus clothing shop were always a joy. We had both a college and a university within a mile of each other, and there were always students and faculty members in the shop talking about everything from the latest jazz musician or writer (Miles Davis and Allen Ginsberg? Or Nina Simone and Kerouac? ) to the superiority of grey or brown herringbone Harris Tweed sports jackets. The atmosphere of the place seemed to have a culture of its own. A mix of fine clothes, erudite banter, personal service, and a sense of solid tradition. It was a haven of civilization that seemed to defy the ravages of time.

There were several different makers of button down shirts, but my campus shop stocked the Gant button down, particularly prized for the consummate roll to the collar – achieved by placing the buttons three inches down from the neckband on a three-and-one-half inch collar point – and renowned athletic touch of a locker loop at the bottom back seam of the yoke. It reeked of self-assurance, being able to convey a sense of security and flair at the same time.

… I was a junior in public school I think when I first started to religiously make regular pilgrimages to the local campus shop. It was hallowed ground, all burnished pine paneling and brass fittings, with maroon leather wing chairs and red tartan carpeting, the walls hung with hunt club scenes and college escutcheons. In my mind there’s the smell of Bay Rum and gentility about the place.

The clothing on display was an integral aspect of the interior design. The collection of vibrant repp striped neckwear hung on several long brass rods, one on top of each other to form a cascading wall of lustrous silk splendor. There were piles of pastel-colored Shetland crewnecks (replaced in spring by cotton polos) strewn on green baize-topped tables, and pigeon-hole cubicles bursting with bright Argyle hosiery. A brass fixture, like a truncated hatrack with a circle of spokes at the top, was festooned with lengths of striped surcingle and D-ring belts in school and military colors. It had a country maypole air about it.

Farther back, along the walls were double pipe rows for sports jackets and a few suits: heathery Harris Tweed and lighter weight Shetland jackets, grey flannel and discreet herringbone suits for fall and winter; grey-and-white striped cotton seersucker and Indian madras jackets, and suits of grey or navy tropical weight worsted or tan and olive poplin for summer.

But it was the shirt display that always got my attention and time. A wall of shirts, stacked waist-high-to-ceiling on five ascending shelves a good ten feet long, an enormous bookcase of broadcloth and oxford, voile and madras and the occasional cotton-wool blend. There were solid colors – white of course, and pastels of blue, yellow, ecru, and pink — and stripes of varying widths, and checks and plaids in Scottish hues of the clans. There were a few straight-point collared broadcloths for the businessmen, and tab and rounded club collars for the dandier customers. But the majority of the clientele, college students and faculty members, chose the redoubtable button down.

The USA at that time had several makers of good button downs, each campus shop favoring one shirtmaker or another. There were some differences in quality of course, but it was the subtle stylistic deviations of detail between these shirts and the attitude of the collar that were noted by the cognoscenti with all the discernment of a silver expert examining a Cellini salt cellar.

This attention to the aesthetic minutiae could be read at a glance from twenty paces by the enlightened. Some button downs had no chest pocket, or a chest pocket with a buttoned flap, some had a sleeve gauntlet button; some cuff corners seemed a bit more rounded, others a bit longer in the tails. Sophistication, not the Devil, was in the details. There’s the story that when the young and awestruck Boston Globe journalist and Ivy League dandy George Frazier was introduced to his idol John O’Hara at a jazz club in Greenwich Village, O’Hara invited the bedazzled Frazier to join him at his table because he recognized they were both wearing the same shirtmakers’ button down. This was not mere clothing, it was a symbol of social acceptance in the grammar of dress.

Collars were measured in eighths of inches along the length of the points, height of the collar band, width of the tie space, and most importantly the precise placement of the collar buttons on the chest that produced the distinctive attitude of the “roll”. The roll of the collar, the way it slightly buckled and arched, that was the thing. It was a collar of purposeful dishevelment steeped in legend and tradition. Invented by the British aristocracy for playing polo (the buttons kept the long collar points from flapping around), and perfected by an American democracy cultivated on an impulse of deliberate dishabille, there was an informal protocol about it that suited our more relaxed attitude, and reflected an almost Jeffersonian conception of the natural aristocrat. The man who wore the perfectly rolled button down was a man at ease with himself and the proprieties of life.

The traditional button down shirt was full cut in the body and sleeves, so there was a billowy insouciance to it’s silhouette. Men didn’t like to “feel” their clothes on them any more than they liked heavy starch or thick interlinings, which meant  the collars, barrel cuffs, and front placket of these shirts were all softly constructed. There were no cardboard-like, fusible interlinings to creak and chafe. It’s true that even the finest hand-laundry or home care might iron in a few wrinkles, but that only added to the nonchalance of the look. Today we’ve sacrificed comfort and attitude to stiff, leaden collars with all the pristine panache of an orthopedic neck brace. But for the true Ivy Leaguer comfort was considered an essential component of luxury.

I remember the day I bought my favorite shirt. It was a warm Saturday afternoon in September, about a week after school had begun. After sauntering around the shop, stopping occasionally to rub a bit of fabric between thumb and forefinger and noting all the new autumn selections, I sidled over to the wall of shirts. I knew where my size would be, and focused intently. I took my time and finally asked the salesman to pull out the striped oxford cloth button downs. I already had solid blue, white, and pink ones. He set before me a red, brown, blue, and green stripe. The striped oxford cloth was always a “candy” stripe:  wider than a pencil stripe, not as wide as a Bengal stripe. They were all handsome and any of them would have suited my small but versatile wardrobe. The green – not a bright Kelly or grass green, more of a slightly faded fir green — was a bit more unusual.

“I’ll take the green one,” I said. I knew it would go nicely with my grayish brown herringbone tweed jacket or my summer tan poplin suit. It did, and I wore that shirt for two years as a dress and sports shirt, til my neck size changed. I got another year out of it just as a sports shirt. When I went back to the shop a year or so after that, I found the green stripe was no longer being made.

That’s always the way, isn’t it? Well, I was a grown man now, and showing any signs of the deep disappointment and personal hurt I felt was out of the question. It hadn’t been the first disappointment of adult life for me, nor the most traumatic. Crestfallen, and with something of the cheerless heart you felt when you suddenly realized the beautiful girl you’d been talking with is engaged, I chewed my lower lip and bought the blue striped one. I still suppose you can never have too many blue shirts. But looking back, perhaps I felt that as long as I had that green striped oxford cloth button down I might have stayed at that wonderful spot where youth meets adulthood forever. Maybe I could have defied some of the ravages of time.

24 Comments on "My Favorite Shirt: Boyer For Gant"

  1. Mr. Boyer writes: “The atmosphere of the (1950s campus clothing shop) seemed to have a culture of its own. A mix of fine clothes, erudite banter, personal service, and a sense of solid tradition. It was a haven of civilization that seemed to defy the ravages of time.”

    A bit different from a contemporary Brooks Brothers outlet mall shop, no? Of course the outlet mall “trad” shop is open 12 hours a day, seven days a week and alwasys has lots of “sales” and “specials”. Such is “progress”.

  2. Great article! Couple of points:

    ‘It’s an article he says the brand commissioned from him several years ago; the concept was “my favorite shirt,” and it was ultimately used for a brochure.’

    As it was commissioned by Gant, Mr Boyer would of course not have been able to mention that today’s Gant BDs are nowhere remotely near the quality of the ones that inspired this article.

    ‘There’s the story that when the young and awestruck Boston Globe journalist and Ivy League dandy George Frazier was introduced to his idol John O’Hara at a jazz club in Greenwich Village, O’Hara invited the bedazzled Frazier to join him at his table because he recognized they were both wearing the same shirtmakers’ button down. This was not mere clothing, it was a symbol of social acceptance in the grammar of dress.’

    This made me laugh out loud – this is a famous anecdote, except it’s always about the fact that both wore Brooks button downs. Of course Mr Boyer had no choice but to omit that part of the story.

    And on the subject of Brooks: I still say their shirts were the best ever.

    I’d love to read an account from Mr Boyer of what the well-regarded shirts were back then (I assume: Brooks, Gant, Press, Troy, Sero and I imagine others) and what the differences between them were.

  3. Great remembrance and lament, especially when remembering what has been lost in NYC with J. Press giving up button-down district ghost!

    P.S. which wonderful stores is Boyer talking about in this piece?

  4. @Steedappeal If I were to lay a bet I would say Tom Bass.

  5. Great stuff, and if you haven’t shelled out for the latest Boyer tome available at bookstores of distinction (or Amazon…) you’re missing out. It’s heartening that many small men’s shops still exist across the country, even if nowadays they skew somewhat towards anglophilia.

  6. Ah, such good memories. I worked in such a campus shop while in college in the late 60’s/early 70’s. The sales force consisted of four or five guys, each a member of a different fraternity. The shop carried Gant, Corbin, Bert Pulitzer, Pringle, among others. If memory serves, Gant shirts were in the $14-$16 range, Corbin flannel trousers were $30 or so, and a pair of shell cordovans could be had for under $50. Typical conversation with customers was in the direction of football, the upcoming party, and co-eds. I left for law school in 1972 and found out several years later that the shop didn’t survive the “wardrobe malfunction” of the 70’s. I wish more of these shops were around today.

  7. NaturalShoulder | September 6, 2015 at 7:40 pm |

    Mr. Boyer has a way with prose as few others do when writing about style. Another wonderful piece.

  8. NaturalShoulder, I agree. Thank you, Mr. Boyer.

  9. Poison Ivy Leaguer | September 7, 2015 at 8:54 am |

    And right down Rte. 309 from Tom Bass in Bethlehem was the Eagle shirt factory in Quakertown. $2.50 for slight (and I do mean slight!) irregulars and $4.00 for samples and overruns in the mid-60’s. Gant and Eagle were both eventually acquired by Crystal Brands which went belly-up in the early 90’s.

  10. The description of the shop is evocative for many of us. And going back to buy an item we thought special, and finding it no longer there, is also a familiar experience of regret and frustration. I can remember, in particular, a light blue end-on-end Brooks Brothers dress shirt that I wore to death and never found that shade again. But what makes the story stay with me long after reading is the way the green candy-striped shirt is made to stand for a particular fleeting moment in one’s life that can’t be recovered either, even though, we are told, the younger self thought it might have bestowed a kind of permanence. Nicely done, Mr. Boyer.

  11. G. Bruce Boyer | September 7, 2015 at 11:29 am |

    Many thanks for all the kind words from kindred spirits. I should mention that the shop was indeed Tom Bass, in Bethlehem, PA. The building is unchanged, but the shop remains only in memory.

  12. DGC, did you somehow get an advance copy of “True Style”? Mine isn’t scheduled to fly through Cyberspace and into my eReader until it’s publication date (September 8th) which is tomorrow.

    Do you live on the other side of the Earth, where it’s already tomorrow?

  13. Depressingly it’s always today where I live, never tomorrow. Just ordered a hard copy normally from Almighty Amazon and got it last week, sounds like they’re stricter with e-reader…readers.

  14. Advance copy! (raises hand)

  15. Roy R. Platt | September 7, 2015 at 7:01 pm |

    You are very lucky, DCG. New books are usually “SOS” (Strict On Sale) and can’t be sold before the date that they are supposed to go on sale.

    New books usually come out on Tuesdays, which is why the person who does “Frontlist” in many bookstores comes to work at 7:00am on Tuesdays.

    Some bookstores stay open past Midnight when popular books (like the “Harry Potter” or “Twilight” series books) come out and have events related to the book and start selling the new books at Midnight.

    (I did not order my eBook from Amazon. I’ve seen people get in trouble at work for saying that word, unless they were talking about a river in Brazil filled with piranhas or mythical women warriors.)

  16. I was a Manhattan OCBD man myself, from about 1962-68 (jr. high and high school), as my frugal Dad wasn’t going to pay extra for “the same shirt”. Well, it wasn’t quite, but the Gant was twice as much, so….

    I, too, remember when even the smallest towns had a men’s shop, and even if the garments weren’t top-level you were still going to be sent out well-fitted. The staff was usually the owner and two or three long-time employees, and they had pride in their work, and a reputation to uphold.

  17. How much was the Gant OCBD back in the Heyday?

  18. Richard Press | September 7, 2015 at 9:18 pm |

    “True Style” is The Sermon on the Mount. Not to be missed by anyone pretending to know anything about Menswear. PS: Amazon delivered print edition pronto last week.

  19. Gant shirts were $8.50 in 1968.

  20. Gant shirts 6.50 in 1962

  21. Inflation adjusted, around $58 in the year 2015. Less than the presently offered Gant oxfords on sale, I think.

  22. Can’t help but notice the irony of my lauding small men’s shops of yore while I praise a large (and lately quite notorious) company for their shipping speed…nostalgia tempered with appreciation for where we’ve come in many ways, I guess. I’d give up ease of access for better goods in a heartbeat.

  23. I wouldn’t sweat the irony. If there is any. Brooks was a big and expanding department store by the time it was setting the tone and pace for what some (okay, almost nobody) continue to refer to as “Ivy” style. Originally, it was Brooks style. Take away the locker loops and the hook vents and center-back collar buttons, and, well, it’s Brooks. Brooks, which by the 1920s was a big and growing store. Campus outposts by way of salesmen, but never a “campus shop” like so many of the stores we mentioned here.

    If any smallish “campus shop” had relied upon me or classmates for steady business, they would’ve died a sad yet fast death. LL Bean ruled the day, which, by that time, was–yup–an enormous department store. There were good men’s clothing stores near campus, but no undergrad in his right mind was going to buy a Southwick jacket for graduation when the Orvis (talk about big) tweeds were 1/2 (or less) the cost. Bean offered quality everything at manageable prices, while the “campus shop” nearby catered to alumni budgets, complete with in-store account: labels aplenty including Alden, Berle, Gitman Bros., Kenneth Gordon (a great shirt), and Atkinsons.

    Once again the prevailing force is nostalgia. Which is fine. “Remember when…?” What we take on our journey–the conversations (hearty, droll) and scents (Bay Rum evokes all things good) and textures and touch (Shetland everything, cotton drill, Irish Poplin)–matters. The things we carry, if I may borrow from a superb short story. All to the good.

    All that said, the most frequently discussed (’round these parts) “campus shop” lives on (or maybe we should say onward) in memory mostly, and in reality only because of a giant Japanese company. Long after the “campus shops” have died, Brooks survives and even thrives. Full circle. The “campus shop,” peddling a more casual version of Brooks, was a blip on the screen. Meanwhile, Brooks presses on.

    Honestly, who could have expected college guys to maintain an allegiance any look for very long? If honesty rules the day, polar fleece jackets are more comfortable than Shaggy Dogs and $800 for a blazer deserves the mocking laughter of sophomores everywhere.

    Big rules.

  24. Brian Christenson | December 28, 2015 at 5:54 pm |

    Ah, what memories. When I went to work for Gant in 1971 as a sales rep, the solid bd was $12 retail. The first Rugger (named by Bill Keegan, Pres.) was introduced in the “Holiday/Cruisewear” ’71 line. Pulitzer neckwear was part of the line, soon to be spun off by Bert with his own sales reps. Before many years, sportswear became the dominant portion of the Gant brand, representing 80 % of total sales in 1977, just before the collapse of the brand as it was known in 1980. What a great ride!

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