Of  OCBD’s and a Conspiracy Theory

Editor’s Note: It is Mr. Grant’s week here and we are grateful. The cover image is a small puzzle, it’ll be solved in a second here by someone bright.

          It would be my guess that 5% of the visitors to this website have never heard of an OCBD. They probably stumbled onto Ivy Style, thinking it is a gardening blog that might offer some hints on how to start an ivy ground cover. The other 95%, of course, are aficionados of traditional dress and know that OCBD stands for an Oxford cloth, button-down-collar shirt.

          I define an OCBD as a gentleman’s shirt made of 100% cotton Oxford cloth. It has a three to three-and-one-quarter inch (3.00–3.25”) button-down collar that arches slightly when buttoned. The shirt is cut full in the traditional style (not tapered) and has long tails, front and back. The length of the tails extend about 8-9” below the waist or almost to the bottom of a gentleman’s boxer shorts. The shirt has a placate down the front with white buttons and barrel cuffs with a single white button. The OCBD also features a left breast pocket and a box pleat on the back, just below the shoulders. That is the style I bought 62 years ago, and it is the same shirt I prefer today. Just to clarify, this is my definition of an OCBD. It might not be yours.

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As a rule, I do not fall for conspiracy theories. I never bought into the speculation about the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Nor did I even remotely consider David Ray Griffin’s crackpot notion that the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by the U.S. government. And I certainly did not fall for all that wacko QAnon bovine scatology. I just do not buy into conspiracy theories, nor do I promulgate them. But something is going on with OCBD’s. And there is mischief afoot! 

          I have noticed recently that some alleged OCBD’s have collars that are only two and seven-eighths inch at the point (2.875”) or less. Some shirts are tapered or “trim fit” – as if there is some particular advantage to looking like Pee-wee Herman. And the nice long tails, front and back, have mysteriously gone missing, disappeared, vanished – without a trace. This stratagem, of course, increases the shirt-maker’s cloth yield, while altering the time-honored specifications of the OCBD. 

Am I the only person who has noticed this revamping of one of the pillars of traditional dress? Surely not. I would be interested if any readers have an opinion or comment on this conspiracy. 

The vanishing shirt tails described above substantiates one of the immutable laws detailed in The Principles of Economics 101, i.e., the Candy Bar Effect. To wit: The candy maker does not raise the price of his chocolate bars, he just makes them smaller. But does he reduce the selling price commensurate to the savings he has realized? Of course not! The windfall just reduces his manufacturing cost and filters down to his bottom line. The candy man is obviously unaware that economists and other practitioners of the dismal science are wise to his chicanery.

Just out of curiosity, I decided to conduct a little product research. I went to the website of Turnbull & Asser, a British shirtmaker of international repute. The firm just happens to possess a royal warrant as a purveyor of shirts of to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who coincidentally just recently got a promotion. To my utter amazement, T & A (no pun intended) has also whacked the tails off their shirts. And yet, they still have the temerity to charge $400-$530 (US) for them.

And how about this? I recently discovered that some manufacturers and retailers – not mentioning any names – sell shirts made of a blend of cotton and recycled polyester. Please do not get me wrong, I am a big supporter of sustainability and protecting our environment, but really, does anyone want a shirt made of recycled polyester? Or even virgin polyester for that matter! 

My mother – bless her heart – once gave me a shirt for Christmas. When I opened the gift-box, the shirt appeared to be your basic blue OCBD, and it was the correct size. Shortly after the holidays, I wore that shirt to work. Almost immediately, I noticed that I was warmer than usual and wondered if I might have a fever. When I got home that evening, I looked inside the shirt’s collar. There was a label that looked something like this. 

White 50% Cotton 50% Polyester Woven Clothing Sewing Garment Care Label Tags

          On November 11, 1961, I purchased my first OCBD at Bill King Clothiers in Bristol, Virginia. The reason I know the precise date is that my father took me to the Tennessee-North Carolina football game in Chapel Hill the previous Saturday. On that trip, I made mental notes on how the UNC fraternity boys dressed. Most of the young men wore what I call a ‘Carolina blue’ OCBD. So, I decided then and there that I would purchase a blue Gant shirt on my next trip to Bill King Clothiers in Bristol. The following Saturday, I did just that. I remember it as if it were yesterday. The shirts were displayed on one wall, arranged by size. I found the 15½ X 34’s and picked out my blue shirt. It was folded in the usual way in a clear plastic bag. I think Gant was the only brand the store carried. The price of the shirt was $5.95. (My father would have been appalled. I think his Arrow shirts cost about $3.95.)

          When I got home from Bristol, I took my new Gant shirt out of the bag, removed all the pins, the cardboard, the wrapping paper, and tried it on. I can still remember the feel and smell of that new shirt. It was another milestone in my metamorphosis to the Southern Collegiate Style.

          And now the rest of the story: Twelve years later, having just graduated from the University of Tennessee, after four years in the U.S. Air Force, I was an assistant furniture buyer at Macy’s in Atlanta. My boss and I were having lunch with a manufacturer’s representative in a nice restaurant in downtown Atlanta. I looked across the room and saw Bill King, the former owner of Bill King Clothiers, sitting with some business associates. When he got up to leave, I excused myself and approached Mr. King in the lobby. As I recall, he was wearing a grey herringbone suit – almost certainly Southwick – and an OCBD with a striped tie. I told him who I was and that I had purchased clothing from his store in Bristol. Mr. King said that he closed his store when the market for proper traditional clothing declined in the early 1970’s.   

He thanked me for remembering him and for my custom when his store was flourishing. I told him how much I appreciated the assistance he gave to a gangly, self-conscious high school boy with not much money, who was trying to learn about clothing and style. He looked up at me and I thought he was going to get emotional, but he said something like, “I just enjoyed helping people make purchases that would enhance their lives and elevate their spirits.” After that encounter, I never saw Bill King again.

William Edward “Bill” King (1927-2007) served in the U.S. Navy and attended Davidson College, near Charlotte, and Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. 

Bill King Clothiers carried many of the ‘collegiate’ brands that were popular during the 1960’s – Bass Weejuns, Southwick, Cox-Moore, London Fog, and Gant. The store always had a great selection of suits, blazers, sport coats, and trousers – khakis, white ducks, seersuckers, and dressier flannels. The ties were impeccably chosen and well displayed. 

After the store closed, Bill King co-founded Charter Data Systems, a venture which utilized computer technology in retail management and consulting. And I am sure his impeccable taste and sense of style served him well as he and his wife imported English antique furniture and accessories for Ruth King Antiques. 

Bill King was a great salesman and a consummate gentleman, and I purchased my first OCBD from him 62 years ago. 

James H. Grant 

30 Comments on "Of  OCBD’s and a Conspiracy Theory"

  1. The circular building in the photograph is the Radcliffe Camera at Oxford University. The building was designed by James Gibbs and built 1737-49. It is part of the Oxford Library.

    • Keith Langford | January 26, 2023 at 12:10 am | Reply

      For those who like such details:
      Camera means “room” in Latin.
      The building is referred to colloquially as “Rad Cam” or “The Camera”.

  2. I could be placated with a reference to an OCBD placket in the second paragraph! Autocorrect strikes again, I suspect.

    I purchased a (RTW) tuxedo shirt from Turnbull’s NY store in early December. Front and back tails were roughly the same as the one I was replacing after 18 years of faithful service, and had purchased in the same shop. Thing is, the new shirt fit much better as it is tapered. They still do stock traditional cut shirts if one wants a big and tall fit, or to wear a tarp.

  3. Charlottesville | January 25, 2023 at 11:05 am | Reply

    Thank you for a delightful remembrance of a bygone Virginia retailer. Bill Kivlighan’s aptly named Men’s Store in Staunton, Virginia, along with Eljo’s in Charlottesville, played a similar role in my life a decade or two later before I moved on to Brooks and Press after graduation. The Staunton store is long gone, but Eljo’s is still open for business, even if Southwick is no longer around to make their MTM sack suits and sport coats.

    As for short collars and nearly tail-less shirts, I can only shake my head and urge one and all to head to J. Press, Mercer & Sons and the other few shirtmakers who maintain the old standards.

  4. Bill King carried Southwick (Grieco Bros), Gant, Alden, Pantherella, and Troy Guild, among. other makers. His taste was impeccable yet understated.

    While you’re portably correct that Mr. King’s herringbone suit was made by Southwick, he would be quick to share that Norman Hilton was preeminent among suit, “country jackets,” and blazer manufacturers. His son, William, has affirmed that Norman Hilton was, far and away, the best clothing they stocked and sold. This stands to reason, since Norman Hilton’s high, demanding standards remain the stuff of legend.

    Apropos this observation, his son (aforementioned) picked up the traditional clothing mantle– and carries it faithfully to this very day. The Kings were (are) a first-class family: generous, witty, dignified, cordial to a fault. And faithful to the institutions and culture of that (delightful) part of the South.

  5. * probably

  6. This is mildly heretical, but there’s a good case to be made for shorter (around 2 3/4″) OCBD collars– unlined and unfused. No pronounced “roll,” but, instead, what amounts to a gentle, slightly curved spread effect. I was sold after seeing pictures of a younger Kingman Brewster–his first few years as president of that university in New Haven. Suitable for narrow lapeled, narrow-necktie’d Ivy styling.

    Brooks Brothers made the “Clifford Collar” OCBD, “shorter points with no roll.” It measured around 2 1/4″ in length, “making it excellent for business wear” (original brochure copy). The original Brooks “polo collar” featured a 2.5-2 3/4″ collar.

    • This is most likely the model worn by Benjamin with his seersucker jacket in “The Graduate”. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice his collar is much shorter than those we associate with the Heyday.

      • Yes. Dustin Hoffman is 5’6”. I’m guessing a 38S in OTR terms. To S.E.’s point, it’s about classic proportions. A narrow tie and narrow lapels would take a smaller collar. I like the look of a tab collar, but I cannot pull it off. There is no way I can get a “regular” tie knot to work with a tab. I have 3” BDs and would prefer they were longer, and I would not be opposed to altering the button placement.

  7. * “Clifford Collar” was introduced in the late 1940s.

    • Charlottesville | January 25, 2023 at 1:31 pm | Reply

      Good point re the short Brooks Brothers’ Clifford button-down collar. I accidentally acquired one at some point in the 90s simply because I didn’t know that BB made more than one style of OCBD. I just grabbed it off the shelf, paid and left. I have no idea what happened to it, but it just never looked right to me and I assume it wound up in the Goodwill bag at some point.

  8. I read online that there were four collegiate shirt weaves, named after the most prestigious universities in the world: Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale.

    The latter three menswear fabrics went the way of the Dodo.

  9. My theory on the shortening of shirt tails is less conspiracy but more sad. I think they were shortened to look better untucked.

  10. Thank you for the column James. I agree with your comment that the cut of many contemporary shirts reflects the seller’s practice of reducing material costs to increase margin. You can see the same thing happening with suits and pants as well. (shorter, tighter, lower rise, omission of cuffs and pleats) The irony is that you see this occurring at the higher end of men’s retail. By higher end, I mean above t-shirts, sweats, athletic gear, etc.

  11. They don’t look better, but they do hide bellies and butt cracks. These guys should just buy trasteful camp shirts. 🙂

  12. Frederick J Johnson | January 25, 2023 at 2:58 pm | Reply

    My favorite sport jacket is a brown hounds tooth weave, 3/2 roll, non pleated, natural shoulder, side vented, Norman Hilton model from the “old” NYC A&F thrifted years ago. I can remember when A&F stores first opened in the Malls and such jackets were still available along with solid and striped OCBD’s and some wonderful ties.

  13. Richard Gage, prominent architect, is known to sport the Clifford Collar OCBD. It looks pretty good but I do prefer the traditional length.

  14. Y’all are putting the best construction on this, because you are intelligent and business minded/fiscally responsible. I say it’s strictly a matter of the globalization of poor taste.

  15. Robert Rindler | January 25, 2023 at 5:25 pm | Reply

    Excellent article
    I miss the specialty stores
    Thank the shirt gods we have Mercer shirts! Just like the J. Press & Brooks Bros shirts I wore in the 60s& 70s

  16. They derisively call our clothes “dad style.” I call theirs “daughter style.” Try it out on some smug punk in tight clothes. You will be pleased with the result.

  17. This post gave me a reason to mention a couple more wonderful all-cotton (i.e., ocbd) American-made shirtmakers that never made it past the 1990s: Sero and Norman. (The two makers were equals to Troy but superior to Gant and Pulitzer.) To me, all the lore of a Brooks Brothers ocbd was because of how well its cut, cotton and collar was unlike anything else.

  18. A very nice reminiscence. I would like to read more. Thank you.

  19. Though your OCBD includes a pocket, you don’t mention my biggest peeve -that more manufacturers are routinely dispensing with the traditional left breast pocket (on the candy bar principle?). I might not notice a .125″ shorter collar, but one’s shirt pocket is a practical utility, and you feel its lack. Another pet peeve: by the time I was in high school I had access to and could wear all of my father’s dresser-full of Brooks, Gitman, Gants – and I remember there were many more stripes in various inventive combinations. For some reason, clothiers now seem to think they should offer solids and stripes in a few traditional colors, but reserve their more inventive combinations for checks and tattersalls – patterns I won’t wear.

  20. JB,

    No conspiracy theory here, just common greed.

    Another term for the candy bar effect is “shrinkage”. Less fabric + lower labor costs (less sewing) = more profit.

    Or as Charlie Sheen put it in the movie “Wall Street”:

    “How much is enough, Gordon? How many yachts can you waterski behind?”

  21. Mr. Grant is correct about the collar length– around 3″. The collar points of the original “polo shirt” (OCBD) wouldn’t have been more than that. If the mythology (legend) is true, then the shirt that Mr. Brooks replicated– (the one famously worn by a polo player in England)– would have been a typical “English spread” of that era, around 2.5″-2.75.”

    The “roll” of the original polo shirt was not the exaggerated ‘S-shaped’ hill-and-valley roll that’s frequently exalted. The “roll” would have referred to the week, gentle knoll at the toward the very top of the collar (front), where it meets the band.

  22. * edit: wee (not ‘week’).

  23. I know it’s heresy, but I’m okay with some polyester in my shirts. I have shirts with polyester and it does a nice job keeping the wrinkles down. Today’s polyester threads are a lot softer than the ones used in the seventies and eighties. You really can’t tell the fiber content without looking at the tag. I have a dress shirt with 81% cotton and 19% polyester. Without having to iron, it gives me just a slight bit of rumple that looks great. I also have a linen-poly blend blazer that drapes beautifully. I don’t know how anyone can wear a 100% linen without looking completely wrinkled. I really hate the new wrinkle free all cotton shirts. The cotton is treated with some weird chemical that makes the fabric stiff and uncomfortable like the poly blends from the 70’s. I would take a modern cotton-poly blend over the wrinkle free all cotton shirts any day.

    • The Amazing Tom | January 26, 2023 at 5:29 pm | Reply

      Uncle Ralph has released two new oxford fabrics. Both are performance. One is a cotton blend. The non-cotton is very comfortable. Looks really good. Another person in our practice just purchased one after he saw mine.
      I have not worn the cotton blend yet, but it looks good.
      Press has re-introduced blended fabrics for tailored clothing.

  24. There is a scene in the original Odd Couple movie in which Walter Matthau wears a dress shirt with really long and deep tails. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

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