Rolling With The OCBD Shirt.

Written by Jason Disley
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When you read about Mods, and many other cultural styles, such as Skinheads, and those that like to adopt a Preppy or Ivy style. You will sometimes read the acronym “OCBD shirt”. This stands for Oxford Cloth Button Down. It is quite possibly the most popular style of shirt in the last century, in that it is stylish, and can be worn both casually and formally. Here I look into the history of the style. It’s origins and the popularity of this versatile and seemingly timeless garment.

History has it that John Brooks in 1896 saw the Oxford shirt’s true potential.

Firstly, as the name implies, the OCBD is made out of Oxford cloth. The fabric is made of a distinctive weave which, though similar to a plain canvas weave, uses several yarns woven together instead of individually. This produces a breathable cotton garment with a textured finish.

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Although many points about the shirt have changed with time, two enduring traits linger. The shirt is made out of the Oxford cloth and it features the button-down collar. The second, and most important trait, is a genuine OCBD has a distinctive collar roll.

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This is where, due to precisely this collar design, a popular garment evolved. It managed to look smart without the need for a tie, yet was quite capable of taking one when required. John Brooks just happened to be the grandson of the founder of Brooks Brothers. It was whilst on a trip to England, and watching a Polo match, that he noticed that the players’ collars – which were large and tended to flap, as dictated by the current fashion, and the game’s regulations – had been fastened down to their shirts to stop this flapping around during the time they were playing, which if they had not been, would have made the sport all the more dangerous by possibly impairing their vision, whilst cantering around.

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Impressed by the elegant arch, or ‘collar roll’, the buttons induced, he (John Brooks) promptly took the idea, and America’s most important menswear retailer made the button-down shirt it's own. In fact, the button-down was to become one of the core garments of the preppy, Ivy League style – which is, arguably the most influential look in modern-day menswear history.

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To say that over the next half-century or so men of influence took to the OCBD is, without doubt, an understatement. Clark Gable, who had a 44-inch chest and a 32-inch waist in his prime, was generally unable to wear ready-to-wear clothing except for the Brooks Brothers button-down shirt, which he promptly did, day in, and day out. John F. Kennedy wore it too, helping to make him the first style icon with his finger on both the fashion and nuclear buttons.

Musicians, Chet Baker and Miles Davis – both outfitted for fame in Charlie Davidson’s The Andover Shop, the mecca of preppy – both took to button-downs like Charlie Parker to the Alto Sax. Miles would wear it in his own way: with a knotted handkerchief tucked into the open collar. Gianni Agnelli, of the family behind Fiat, wore his with the collar buttons undone, (a look that feels wrong to me – but, when adopting the Italian notion of sprezzatura is totally acceptable.) Other stars became associated with the style. Paul Newman for example, and it is these high profile celebrities that have inspired shirt style collections ever since. When you look at the history of Modernists, and later the Mods, you see that their inspiration for true style came from the wish to look sharp and rich. They wanted to be like their style icons, and naturally adopted certain garments they saw either in the cinema, in magazines, or on the covers of records. Probably one of the most famous example of an OCBD is the one worn by the aforementioned Miles Davis. The cover of his album Milestones shows him sat relaxed on a mid twentieth-century stool with an orange/tan background. He is wearing a green OCBD which stands out beautifully. The detail is there, the aforementioned all-important collar roll. The casual comfort of it, whilst still looking like Miles means business. It looks effortlessly cool, and of course comfortable.

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Many companies take inspiration from the original Brooks Brothers polo shirt, and the button-down shirt can be found everywhere today. It is a style that will not go away. It is in affect timeless because of its functionality. I could list so many different companies that produce these style shirts, but in truth, the number of companies that get the collars right is not many. More niche companies such as Charles Caine, and DNA Groove produce shirts with all the necessary details, and there are countless other independent shirt makers that will do shirts that tick all the boxes. But, these days – many of the big guns have tried to move with the times, or have bowed to the pressure of cutting production costs, and have got it wrong. Say Gant for example. Their more recent shirts often have a smaller collar, so lack that all-important, and attractive collar roll. Ben Sherman – arguably the first British firm to adopt the Button-Down has done the same. Their more recent shirts seem to have small collars. Sure the buttons are there. But only for the show. The functionality seemingly lost. Mods want authenticity, as do members of other subcultures. It is in all the details, and if your OCBD doesn’t have the correct details, it is deemed inferior. The cloth has to be right, the roll has to be right, basically, the shirt has to be right. How else can you feel as cool as those that have inspired your style?

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Next week I will be looking at Desert Boots.


Read 2543 times Last modified on Wednesday, 06 May 2020 09:02
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Jason Disley

Jason Disley

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