This post originally ran five years ago this week.
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For a certain breed of trad purist, there are only four shirts worth wearing: oxford-cloth button-downs in white, blue, pink and yellow.
White and blue are everyday staples of the office wardrobe, and pink is the iconic color, leaving yellow in fourth place, underappreciated, trickier to match, and less flattering. It’s too colorful to be a business basic like blue and white, yet lacks the legendary status of pink.
I decided to check with Brooks Brothers merchandiser Jeff Blee to see just how the yellow oxford stacks up against its rivals.
First off, Jeff had to qualify things: Not every Brooks store is merchandised the same. Some stores only sell white and blue shirts, so yellow isn’t even a choice (ecru, the only other solid oxford available at Brooks, is so obscure as to hardly warrant mentioning).
So rather than look at sales companywide, we opted to just look at sales at the Madison Avenue flagship, where the four main solids are stacked right next to each other. Here’s how the sales break down:
What do these numbers mean? For one thing, there are almost 10 times as many white shirts sold as yellow. Moreover, there are also nearly twice as many pinks sold as yellow. However, in the South, Blee noted, the margin between pink and yellow is much smaller.
Those who are violently allergic to non-iron shirtings will be pleased to learn that sales of must-iron oxford button-downs are growing, according to Blee. The shirts are attracting new customers thanks to Brooks’ new slim and extra-slim fit options. Kudos to Brooks for keeping a classic alive for everyone by offering updated variations.
But back to the yellow oxford. Why is it less popular? Could it be the color’s connoations of cowardice, envy (as in “a jaundiced eye”), aging (as in yellowed paper), and sensational media (yellow journalism)?
I asked sartorial sage Bruce Boyer to opine, and here’s what he said:
There are several reasons, I think, why the yellow oxford button-down comes in fourth. Both the white and blue are so extremely serviceable they can be be worn with any outfit. There really don’t seem to be any problems with coordination. The Italians, for example, have figured out that a man can wear a discreet blue shirt with any suit, sports jacket or trouser. And white of course has been a standard for longer than we’ve had white-collar jobs.
The pink is a bit more difficult, or perhaps best to say was more difficult because in a less enlightened age some men thought that pink anything was effeminate. This is mercifully no longer the case, and its been noticed that pink is a very flattering color with regard to skin tone: It seems to make the skin look healthier somehow.
And that is also the reason why yellow is not so popular: It tends to work best with darker skin tones, making the lighters ones look a bit sallow. And of course there are greater problems of coordination with yellow shirts and ties. It takes a courageous man to wear a yellow oxford button down with a charcoal grey suit. I don’t say its wrong, merely that it takes more than your average bear to pull it off.
David Mercer, of Mercer & Sons shirtmakers, offered this on what to pair a yellow shirt with:
Our yellow is a nice faded yellow, unlike the butterscotch yellow of old which faded to its best when you were about to use the shirt for simonizing the car.
As Rodney Dangerfield quipped, “When I told my dentist my teeth were going yellow, he told me to wear a brown tie.” Personally, navy, blue, green and some red ties all look terrific with our yellow shirt, as does a blue blazer, a blue or grey suit, and many old tweed jackets.
There are other ways to wear the yellow oxford. In “Daddy Long Legs” from 1955, we first see Fred Astaire in a scene that magnificently blends the hip and square. Astaire wears a yellow oxford with untied bow tie, while smoking a pipe and drumming along to a jazz record:
Moving on, Judge Reinhold wears a yellow oxford with khakis and boat shoes in 1984’s “Roadhouse 66“:
A yellow oxford is worn by three characters in “Making the Grade,” starting with underachiever Palmer Woodrow III, whom we first meet awakening from slumber in his. As with Astaire’s first scene in “Daddy Long Legs,” the yellow shirt can serve as a kind of cinematic shorthand for nonconformist:
Later, the prepsploitation flick’s hero Eddie wears one with Go-To-Hell shorts, baby blue polo and pink sweater:
And finally, here’s the film’s jerk Biff, who wears a yellow shirt with a navy and red tie and kelly green sweater when learning of his expulsion from prep school:
Here are some more outfits with yellow oxfords. First up, Ralph Lauren (click here for RL’s oxford):
Next: J. Press (whose yellow oxford is here), from the current season:
And finally, as we reach the end of the line, a random shot from the Ask Andy Trad Forum. — CC