If I had to describe my personal fashion style in one word, I’ve always immediately jumped to “tailored.” When I met my husband just over 30 years ago, he commented on the number of suits hanging in my closet (with shoes in labeled shoe boxes lining the upper shelf). In fact, he had the audacity to remark that they all looked the same. The nerve! I of course pointed out that they were indeed all quite different. Several, however, were from the same two designer – Montreal designer Simon Chang and Alfred Sung to be specific – so, I suppose to the style challenged they must indeed have all looked very similar.
As my career evolved, and dress codes changed, sadly I wore fewer and fewer suits. But what never changed was my attraction to sleek lines, button-front, collared shirts, blazers and great shoes. Even today, with my current casual lifestyle, I wear a blazer with jeans and I have a favourite Brooks Brothers cashmere one that is one of those pieces that transcends fashion and trends. It will always be in style!
All of this got me thinking about the sewing patterns and styles that I’m drawn to these days. Why is it that I so often create for myself those soft knit pieces? Of course they, too, have a place in my life, but there is little doubt that they are a bit less complicated to fit and sew. This from the woman who delights in those couture sewing techniques that require so much time and attention. I think I always hesitated to tackle a real “shirt” for example, because I so love. Brooks Brothers shirts where the workmanship is without equal for the price point. Not cheap, but certainly not the most expensive you can buy. I love that attention to quality and my question to myself is would I be able to produce something I’d be prepared to wear. Well, this is my year and I’ve just finished the first of at least two shirt type garments that I have planned.
Before I reveal my latest project, though, I was interested to find out when and where we actually started wearing this particular style that seems to transcend fashion. Where did these collared shirt designs originate and, even more interesting, when did women begin to embrace them – because to be sure, they did begin as men’s fashion. So, I did a bit of digging.
First, I need to clarify a bit of terminology. My well-dressed son who loves his Armani tux (which he bought on sale ten years ago and still wears) as much as he loves his jeans and sneakers, loves a button-front shirt. However, he and his friends all call them “button-down” shirts. This had always bugged me since my understanding was that only shirts whose collars actually button down were correctly called this. It turns out that I am, indeed, right. So much for the millennials and their terminology!
It seems that collared shirts have been a part of men’s wardrobes for centuries. In fact, the terms “white collar” and “blue collar” actually do originate in the difference between the colours of the collars worn by men who worked in more clerical, office-type and executive-type positions versus those who toiled as laborers. As you may be aware, before the early 1900’s men’s shirt collars were not, in fact, attached to the shirts at all. It was only after laundry became more accessible and clothing manufacturing became more sophisticated that different fabrics and colours and attached collars became a fashion item for men.
The actual button-down collar has an equally interesting history. In 1896 Brooks Brothers started producing soft button-down collar shirts inspired by the shirts worn by polo players at the time. These days we tend to think of the polo shirt as having a collar that flops around, but it seems that polo players back at the end of the nineteenth century didn’t’ like those floppy collars and began buttoning them down. Still these days the buttoned-down collar is considered to be more casual than one that is not: a button-down is likely to be considered to be a sports shirt while the non-buttoned collar may be on a dress shirt – but as you know, everything is changing in our casual world!
So, when did women start wearing this style? Just last week I received a catalogue from Brooks Brothers. It seems that in 1949 they began to notice that the smaller sizes of their famous button front shirts were selling much faster than the larger sizes. When they tracked down the cause of this they found that women were buying them! It was that year they introduced what is now their iconic button-front shirt for women and so many others have followed suit. So, what am I going to make?
I happened on Butterick 6376 before I landed at Mood Fabrics in LA in February. While I was there, I swooned over their array of shirting fabrics and found a winning combination for me: black and white stripes and black contrast. I then scoured the Toronto garment district for buttons when I got home and plunged in.
What I liked about this particular pattern was that it’s not a simple white (or even coloured) shirt, rather it’s a tunic with interesting sleeves. I know that in my distant sewing past I constructed a variety of collars, but I could not remember ever making a collar with a stand. It looked a bit daunting, but it turns out it’s so easy.
The fabric was so easy to work with, but I wanted it to look great on the inside so decided to flat fell as many of the seams as it would work for and I do love the interior finish.
I haven’t had a chance to wear it yet – still not quite warm enough – but I do know that I need to make another button-front shirt. I have an idea of what’s next, and this time it includes a design of my own that I’ve been working on and all that entails: making the pattern is up first. I’ll let you know what’s happening next!
 A Brief History of Men’s Dress Shirts. https://www.pacificissue.com/the-blog/a-brief-history-of-mens-dress-shirts