Anatomy of a vintage Brooks Brothers button-down shirt


March 5, 2017 by Ville Raivio

Those in the know also know that Brooks Brothers used to make “The” button-down shirt, as was good and proper since they created the first American models. Thing is, style addicts have been decrying the ever-declining make and quality of BB’s button-down shirts from as far back as the 1970s, when the style writer George Frazier opined so. As fate would have it, I found a very old, unused, still wrapped-up BB shirt from one flea market — in Helsinki, Finland, of all places. It was high time to find out what the hey all this shirt talk was about. The example shirt was made during the 1960s in BB’s own factory in America as part of their Makers series. The model is Polo, the original button-down shirt.

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First, the cut. Is it billowy and sail-like on the chest, waist and upper sleeve. On this size 15.5 shirt, a European 39, the chest is 63 cm, the waist 56 cm and the upper sleeve 46 cm. This combination hardly flattered anyone, but back in the days smart shirts used to be covered under knitwear or jackets. They could also be slimmed down for the body-conscious man, but just the one and wide cut was faster to make and easy to fit on most men. The extra slim fit was not invented yet, thank the gods of style, and spandex was not the thing to do. Still, the shoulder-to-shoulder seam measurement is 45 cm and similar to what most contemporary size 39 ready-to-wear shirts have. The wrist measures 22 cm and the collar is a true 39 cm one.

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Second, the collar. The quitenssence of all button-down shirts is the collar and they shall rise and fall with it. With a back height of 4 cm, pointh length of 7,5 cm and spread of 9 cm, this is The Golden Ratio of the Brooks Brothers button-down collar from the Golden Age of the company. The proportions are mild but enough to make it look most handsome as the collar’s inner structure is extremely soft: no glue or stiffener, just a thin layer of cotton fabric. The collar rolls. It does not chafe or restrict. The same goes for the cuffs.

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Third, the fabric. This one has sanforised cotton instead of the heavy oxford weave cotton that made the most famous BB shirts. Compared to contemporary shirtings, this one feels coarse but has a clean, smooth surface. The sanforisation promises less shrinkage with washes and wear.

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Fourth, the details. Here is where the halo around vintage BB shirts dims for me. The buttons are ugly yellow plastic and attached shoddily. The buttonholes are far from tight and raised, loose threads abound, some stitching is wonky and hem edges are turned shoddily. Still, the sleeve ends have nice and tight pleats, the longer hem stays tucked and the heavily rounded hem sides look swell.

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In short, Brooks Brothers offered great-looking and comfortable collars but the quality of their finishing and the greatness of their cut leaves me unimpressed. The nostalgia value is strong with these ones. Obviously I am making sweeping generalisations here, so reader beware, as I have no intention of looking up and buying dozens of BB shirts just to see how their make differs with time.

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  1. Kentworth Edel says:

    You don’t mention three of the most significant details of the older Brooks shirts. First, the “roll,” of the collar – essentially a slight pucker near the front of the collar – arises from an intentional mismatch between the shapes of the collar and the neckband. At some point the present makers figured out that getting rid of this roll would save them a half centimeter of fabric per shirt – hence the collar no longer rolls. Second, the ends of the neckband, where the top button is, are cut straight across instead of curving down, which leaves a slight bit of collar showing above the knot of the tie even when the tie is snug: a subtle feature, but one that is missed. And third, the front of the collar sits high on the neck, right up against the bottom of the Adam’s apple. It looks more elegant and finished that way. Again, the present makers figured they could save a bit of fabric by taking a centimeter from the front of the shirt, which now looks as if somebody is tugging down on it. It’s all about the collar!

  2. J. Morgan says:

    My father grew up in the 30s and had the good luck of going to some great schools and family connections. I was born right at the end of 1945 and growing up I always remember my father’s sense of style- tweed coats, flannel pants, blue oxford button down shirts all from BB. He’d been a pilot since he was 16, a flight instructor in the Army Air Corp during WW2 and a private pilot for a wealthy family while managing a small air service. I remember going to NYC a number of times and seeing the collection of great shirts, shoes and all things in style at the Madison Ave. store. There were also trips to J.Press, Chipp and Abercrombie&Fitch before the latter sold out.
    These days I don’t have to dress up any more but I’m still on the look out for heavy cotton oxford
    shirts like BB use to make. For a while Lands End was my go to haberdasher. They had Willis and Geiger, some well made and unique tweed sports coats and a few years ago had a custom shirt department. But unfortunately like many stores have faded… but then again, so have I.

  3. tom phimer says:

    Great piece. Been looking for the gray-ish/blue oxford button-down available originally both at Madison Ave. and Trunk Tour locations.

    Anyone still making the real thing? Not Mercer, unfortunately.
    Brooks currently not ‘plugged in’to any quality like the original…
    Only making jerky’little boy’ collars like everyone else.

  4. Ville Raivio says:

    You are correct. The point length is weak in this shirt and longer ones make for a better-looking roll.

  5. Zachary S. says:

    7.5 cm seems rather short for the collar point length, especially considering the way people wax poetic about the greatness of the vintage Brooks collar roll. That is in the vicinity of some modern Polo Ralph Lauren and Land’s End oxfords that the same people often decry for their short collars. I recently had an oxford made with 9.5 cm collar points and can’t imagine ever trying to get a really good roll with less now.

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