I was cleaning up my very cluttered computer desktop yesterday when I came across a bunch of files I used for our Oxford Cloth Button Down Shirt series. Before I delete everything, I thought I’d post these photos, in case some of our readers might be interested in knowing how to date vintage Brooks Brothers shirts.
These are garment labels from the vintage shirts I borrowed from our friends at O’Connell’s, An Affordable Wardrobe, and Typhoid Jones. I snapped these pictures and then sent them to Brooks Brothers’ media relations department, asking if they could help me date them. The process took a while – I assume because they had to search for someone who was familiar enough with the company’s history – but after a month or two, they submitted the following images back, with the dates you see above.
Note, these dates are a bit iffy. The two blue oxford shirts you see at the end (dated 1999 and 2001) are from O’Connell’s. Ethan there tells me that he’s absolutely certain that the shirts are from the early 1990s, as that’s when they last stocked those shirts at their store. I assume he’s right, especially since the garment label for 1992 seems to be the same as the one marked for 1999. Not sure why Brooks Brothers dated those two the way they did, but the possibility of those being a mistake made me doubt how reliable the other dates were. For what it’s worth, however, the pre-1940s tag is almost certain to be reliable, as that was the detachable collar shirt and my contact at Brooks Brothers had no information about these shirts’ styles. The 1949 tag is also probably correct since that was the only oxford cloth button down without a chest pocket (a detail they added sometime in the 1950s or so).
In any case, as iffy as these may be, here’s Brooks Brothers’ submission on how to date their shirts. This might be a potentially useful guide for folks who go thrifting often.
If I could only wear one shirt style for the rest of my life, it would be, without a doubt, the oxford cloth button down (or as it’s also known to style enthusiasts, the OCBD). The OCBD is perhaps our country’s greatest sartorial contribution. As the story goes, it has its beginnings in 1896, when Brooks Brothers‘ John E. Brooks (who was the grandson to the founder Henry Sands Brooks) saw polo players in England wearing shirts with two buttons at the front to secure their collar tips. This prevented their collars from flapping into their face while they were playing. Men had many ways of securing collars at this time of course – collar pins, wire contraptions, and heavy starch, for example – but this was the most practical for sporting purposes.
John E. Brooks was quite enamored with the invention, so he sent a sample back to his main store in New York City with instructions to have the collar copied exactly, down to every last measurement. In 1900, the company put the new collar style on their ready-made sport shirts. These were called “polo shirts” for their polo-inspired collars. Not too long after, the polo collar was put on white cotton cheviots (also known in the trade as “oxford”) and the American OCBD was born.
The shirt was almost an instant classic. By 1915, it was a fashion staple for men at almost every East Coast college, and by mid-century, it spread West. Bob Newhart named his first record album after them. Politicians wore them while kissing babies. Style icons Paul Newman, Miles Davis, and Gianni Agnelli were all regularly seen in them. They became something of a symbol of all that was good: casualness, youth, education, trustworthiness, dependability, sport, and professionalism. They were something a man could wear in the country or city, in sport or business, on weekdays or weekends.
Unfortunately, the OCBD has been modernized, and a lot of what enthusiasts found charming about the original version has mostly been strangled out. At the heart of this transformation is the collar. The original collars had long points and were made without any interlining. This resulted in a very unique, soft roll that would change depending on the wearer’s position, movement, and even the way he happened to tie his tie that day. It was asymmetrical, wrinkly, and frankly even a bit messy looking. But therein lies the charm. These days, most button-down collars are lined (some heavily) so they look more “controlled” and “perfected.” Many also have shorter collar points. Some are so short that there’s no roll at all when the tips are buttoned; the points just lay flat against the body, like a regular point collar with two buttons sticking out. The death knell, I think, was the introduction of the non-iron oxford cloth, which lacks any of the individual expression, casual ease, and lived-in look that made the original oxford charming. The combined effect of all these things is shirts that look a bit lifeless. As one of my favorite blogs, Heavy Tweed Jacket, once wrote of them, “one might say that contemporary shirts […] are almost too well-made.”
Indeed, few people make the original OCBD like they used to, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great options still worth buying. And the OCBD is still one of the most versatile shirts one can own. It’s something you can wear underneath rustic tweeds, navy blazers, softly tailored suits, or fuzzy sweaters. You can even just wear it alone with a pair of trousers and some loafers. A blue semi-spread collar shirt is arguably just as useful, but I’ve never worn one that has brought a smile to my face like a good OCBD. There’s just something about that collar roll and traditional American spirit.
So as an ode to my favorite shirt, I thought I’d do a series of posts on OCBDs. A few friends have generously lent me their vintage Brooks Brothers shirts, which I’ll take pictures of and describe, so people can see how the “genuine articles” have evolved over time. I’ll also do a quick review of something around ten or so different OCBDs, at every price point, so people can figure out who they can turn to in case they haven’t yet settled on a favorite maker.
“The Roll of the Collar Is the Most Important Thing”
From Ivy Style, here’s a nice excerpt from an 1983 issue of Esquire, in which John Berendt opines about the button down collar.
The mere thought of buttondown shirts reminds me of the late, dapper George Frazier, freewheeling columnist for The Boston Globe and a contributor to this magazine over a span of many years. George Frazier possessed a highly refined sense of style, and he could be moved to eloquence on the cut of a Huntsman suit, the precision of a hunting gun, the elegance of handmade Lobb shoes, or the shoeshine at Ralph Kaufman’s place at the Cleveland airport, which was, in George’s estimation, “an achievement of such matchless glossiness” that on more than one occasion he changes planes in Cleveland just to avail himself of its artistry. “The roll of the collar,” Geoerge used to say apropos of buttondown shirts, “that is the most important thing.”
And, of course, he was right. The roll is everything when it comes to buttondown shirts, the roll being that parabolic curve, described by the forward edges of the collar. The whole idea of the buttondown, historically, has been that it was a soft, unlined collar with long points that would flap in the breeze if they were not tethered. This was the case when John Brooks of Brooks Brothers first laid eyes on them at a polo match in England in 1900. Players had fastened their collars with buttons to keep them from snapping in their faces. Brooks brought the idea back to New York, and from that day to this the white oxford-cloth polo-collar shirt has been Brooks Brothers’ biggest-selling item. The Brooks polo collar has a full roll to it, which is the only contour that makes any sense. Buttondown shirts with short straight collars and no roll are an anomaly; they do not need buttons, they need collar stays.
In its 82 years, the Brooks buttondown has seen very few changes. Colors have been added to the line along the way, most notably pink… As always, the shirt’s heavy oxford fabric is woven exclusively for Brooks…. The body of the shirt is slimmer these days but still “generously” cut. Otherwise, the only news is that in the past decade Brooks has broken its long-standing tradition and put a pocket on the front of the shirt — a move that would have dismayed George Frazier. George kept his pens in his inside jacket pocket and condemned shirt pockets as gauche — something you don’t wear, he said, “not if you know the score.”
As some may remember, chest pockets started appearing on Brooks Brothers’ button down shirts sometime in the late 1950s/ early 1960s. I like the detail, but every generation seems to hate the thing that’s most modern and be wistful about the thing that died yesterday. Give me the old collar roll back, instead of the short, stubby collars being sold today. That’s all I ask for.