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.
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.
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