ocbds

8

Dating Brooks Brothers Shirts

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. 

8

The Oxford Cloth Button Down Shirt Series, Part I

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.

Get ready for some OCBD adulation. 

3

Bringing Back the American Button-Down

The arrival of a new custom-shirt company is hardly anything to write about (they pop up more often than raw denim brands on Kickstarter), but Michael Spencer offers something exciting: American-made oxford-cloth button-downs, designed with soft, unlined collars, just like Brooks Brothers used to do during the heydays of Ivy style. 

The company is run by a husband-and-wife team out of Utah, and the name comes from the middle names of the couple’s two sons. Michael Bennett, the husband side of the team, is an old trad enthusiast, having worn sack suits and button-down shirts since the ‘70s. Frustrated by how hard it is to find the things he likes, he decided to start a shirt label a few years ago, and the company just launched last month. 

Soft Collars, American Manufacturing

Michael Spencer’s shirts are all made in the USA from Japanese oxfords, with some flexibility built in through a made-to-order program. What makes their offerings unique is that they have soft, unlined collars – which readers of our button-down series will know – help give shirts a relaxed, carefree look. It’s a subtle detail, but important if you care about mid-century American style. At the moment, the only other company I know offering American-made oxfords with unlined collars is Mercer. Theirs are truly fantastic, if they fit you, but they can be a bit billowy on some people (including me, sadly). 

Michael Spencer’s are a bit slimmer, with three cuts that closely mirror Brooks Brothers’ options. Their “vintage fit” is similar to Brooks’ “traditional;” their “classic” is similar to Brooks’ “classic;” and their “modern” is similar Brooks’ “slim fit.” The collar is also very similar, except Spencer’s design features slightly longer points. For the premium, you’re essentially paying for American manufacturing and the ability to get an unlined collar. 

Building a Trad Brand

Bennett tells me this is just the start for his company. In the future, he plans to introduce other classic American shirtings, such as madras, Viyellas, and pinpoints (which is why you see more formal collar and cuff options on the site). After that, he’d love to get into other Ivy style items, such as tweed jackets and beefroll penny loafers. For those who like traditional American clothing, this is company to watch.