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.
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.