In search of Butcher stripes and checks
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
That’s a bit like how I feel when I am trying to pin down the reasons the English make the selections they do. Growing up, I thought of the English shirt style as wild or bold; an anything goes merry-go-round of color and pattern. I believed you could choose just about any shirt you like and be considered an insider and well dressed to boot. I couldn’t have been more wrong. English shirt choices are as hard to pin down and verbalize as the Cheshire cat himself. While trying to figure it all out I wondered if I wasn’t in a mad world with me, like Alice, as the maddest of all because I was sane enough to get out and did not!
All that seems to remain after my research is the equivalent of that lingering grin. The one solid piece I did come away understanding is that the English consider the shirt to be a central item of clothing as much of a focal point as American men think of their neckties. To American men the shirt is simply a chest covering to showcase their tie, for the English a tie is more like a napkin which protects their treasured shirts. Our eyes hit the tie first, their eyes ignore the tie and go straight on to observing the subject’s shirt.
Certain basic patterns are more accepted in England than they would be here. The Bengal stripe in varying gauges and distances between stripes (and their corresponding gauged checks, called ginghams) and the wider butcher stripe (and their corresponding checks, also called ginghams) are traditional standards in England making little more impact on an observer’s eye than a plain white shirt, whereas, at least at one time, they would have been considered quite aggressive in the USA.
How do you define them, can you define them? And does one figure out how to navigate the labyrinth of English shirt tastes? It seems a shirt I would consider quite a fad item is a standard there and another I would consider an attractive choice couldn’t be given away in Albion.
The classic English shirt and why they wear it:
Alice didn’t think that proved it at all: however she went on. “And how do you know that you’re mad?”
“To begin with,” said the Cat, “a dog’s not mad. You grant that?”
“I suppose so,” said Alice
“Well, then, “ the Cat went on, “you see a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.”
A strong current of contrary logic flows into the selection of a item for the English man when he wants to distinguish himself. He has to make this different choice within a complex lattice of tradition. He alone understands which behaviors make his dog normal and his cat’s choice shocking.
With this in mind it is perhaps better to hear what the English themselves say about the shirts they prefer for city wear and the reasons they choose them. It is important when observing a culture to get the observations, opinions and rich experience of the natives whenever possible.
Richard Harvie of Harvie and Hudson:
The English like a look that’s not too contrived, color combinations should be close but not exact. They don’t want a feeling that someone has dressed them. This is no doubt why a navy tie with pink spots gets placed on a wine or a lilac striped shirt. One wants to avoid looking like mannequin in a shop. The English do not like feeling pedantic.
He believes in a strong shirt with a subtler tie or the reverse. Some Englishmen will wear their club tie and place them on whatever bold shirt they might be wearing. However, he doesn’t advocate putting the Guards tie (evenly gauged and spaced navy and maroon stripes) on one of their bold shirts.
Harvie and Hudson have a lot of exclusive shirt fabrics made for them. They Design or choose the pattern for the shirt material first. They then design the tie pattern and send it to Vanners, the silk weavers, and match the shirt colors to the tie colors.
In the late sixties (1960s) bolder shirts became acceptable. They look a little like pajamas and there is a reason for that. Mr. Harvie’s grandfather made up some shirts out of pajamas material in the early 1950s just to see reactions. People started asking for them for a bit of fun. Now these shirts are considered staples even by those who would never wear the shirts themselves in London.
The English wear gingham check shirts with chalk striped suits and it works. Color combinations that are popular are pink and blue. Every time a shirt order is made up for the shops, double the amount of pink and blue is usually called for.
Yellow and Blue combinations come in second with red and blue a close third when it’s a pale blue and just above a cherry red (scarlet). Green and grey are difficult colors to sell. A British racing green might sell but it generally is not worth stocking up on any shade of green.
Lilac and purple are accepted fashionable colors which while not frowned upon at all are not asked for enough. They come around every now and then. Black stripes are almost completely out.
A scarlet red gingham check shirt is very popular in varying scales. A scarlet stripe, just a bit brighter than cherry, is also popular. Sometimes even a solid scarlet shirt will be run for a bit of off-hours fun.
For shirts, the English do not like black stripes or checks. The archives show that Harvie & Hudson stopped making them up in the 1970s. He thinks because fewer black suits are worn. Interesting that he thought black, brown and taupe suits are Italian while blue and grey are English. I suppose as Americans we can choose from the entire spectrum.
It also reveals an interesting difference between the English and the Americans. Americans tend to match a tie with a color in a suit but the English don’t do this unless it’s by accident. If an Englishman were to wear a black suit, he would not wear a black tie to match the suit but he might wear a shirt with grey or black in it. If the tie then had black or grey in it to match the shirt it would be an accident, rendering what one at first glance would imagine was essentially the same as matching the tie to the suit color but yielding esoteric differences. And nuances of approach are ultimately what separate one culture from another.
In the USA, a black background or solid tie, especially a knit or grenadine one, worn with a charcoal suit has non funereal solidity to it, a no nonsense look from our historical sense of FBI seriousness or Film Noir urgency. The English only wear black ties for funerals.
But now it becomes apparent why the English do not like wearing suit cloths with colored stripes, it wreaks havoc with their basic unit of dress, the shirt and tie. To disturb the dynamic would make an entire country late, and the white rabbit of their minds’ eye would never stand for that!
Pale blue solids and pale blue and pink ginghams and stripes in micro Bengal, mini Bengal, Bengal, butcher and jumbo scales are standards. Which is an interesting point, the English like the same thing, both color and pattern, in different scales. The English also love small patterns which from a distance appear solid like mille raie stripes and micro ginghams, houndstooth (or dogstooth) and graph checks.
Although they are staples even the English don’t wear some of these bolder choices for more serious matters. Bold butcher stripes in a white background with the same single color stripe usually a navy (but a royal navy not a black navy) to a pale blue stripe. This is the choice of the self assured city worker and it carries a bit more punch than a standard Bengal stripe.
Acorn fabrics are a favorite because they are dependable, they feel good against the skin and they are dyed and finished in an “English” manner. Two fold 100s are preferred because it is a good balance between wear and comfort.
Mr. Harvie has often wondered why certain other patterns like dots and paisleys never caught on in an England constantly prospecting for new shirt frontiers. He concludes that because the English prefer yarn dyed materials, other patterns they might ordinarily like such as paisleys and dots cannot be executed well; those designs have to be printed.
The semi cutaway is the favorite collar style. There does not seem to be a good reason why this is so but it is true that a form of high banded spread collar is always the collar of choice. The straight collar is not unpopular but no one seems to ever get around to buying any. And oddly for the land where collar pinning was invented Mr. Harvie hasn’t made a collar with eyelets for his made-to-measure clients for at least ten years. He likes the look but it is not popular.
And although button downs are making inroads, they have a long ways to go before they are a standard. However, there is hope for them. Whereas there was a time no Englishman would ever wear a button down collar, they are now finding them useful for after hours socializing. The principal obstacle to total adoption of the button down seems to reside in the fact that the English are happy to wear their more deeply collared spread shirt either with or without a tie.
The double cuff is always popular and has become even more popular. Harvie and Hudson do a brisk made to measure business and see what the English desires are. The button cuff used to be more popular than it is recently which surprises him because he felt that it had been making inroads for casual wear. It seems that change can sometimes prove illusory.
Where does the English sense of color and their cultural associations spring from? The answer may reside in their heraldic tinctures; those colors used to paint coats of arms and also from flowers. Wait, flowers? Yes, colors are generally a bit duller in the paler sunlight found at Britain’s latitude and flowers are one of the few things that brighten up the surrounding flora. It is thus small wonder that lilac, pink, mauve, lavender and the like are popular for men’s clothing colors. The colors used in heraldry are primary, basic and very pure and straightforward, the ultimate Western approach.
“… thought Alice, and she went on. “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“– so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
Darren Tiernan of Dege and Skinner:
Dege and Skinner is a very proper tailoring firm which makes custom suits, shirts and military uniforms. They make a very precise, erect and crisp look for the military officer’s set.
Dege and Skinner produce their shirts in house as well as their suits. Robert Whittaker trained Darren Tiernan as a shirt maker so Mr. Tiernan has considerable expertise in this area. Additionally, he has seen a large number of English gents come through Dege’s doors and gotten to see firsthand both what items they wear and what colors they prefer.
Mr. Tiernan feels that English tastes have changed somewhat with the advent of Thomas Pink and TM Lewin. They provide bolder shirts at affordable prices which in turn serves as an experimental gateway attracting new blood to the West End’s custom shirt arena which used to primarily make white and blue solids and white and blue stripes and checks.
For the English, stripe preferences have become bolder and there is an increase in the amount of checks that they wear. In fact the English now pick bolder and brighter patterns than ever before. At one time only a couple of custom shirt makers offered the bold striped and checked material, now their (Dege’s) customers demand them.
Back in the day the standards for custom makes were the Bengal stripe, graph check, blue end-on-end and white. Now even the more idiosyncratic shirts fabrics are bespoke. The English look upon shirts as very important and patterns and colors we would consider a fad item, they consider staples. Both self stripes and white collar and cuff are favorites. The classic hairline stripe, Bengal stripe and butcher stripes are the one often re-collared and cuffed in white because they are those old comfortable friends Englishman are loathe to part with.
The English love pink and like mauve, lilac, lavender and purple as a bit of something different yet still recognizably English. All sorts of stripes catch the eye as long as the shirt is relatively pale and simply colored. The English do not like complicated shirts.
There are several checks that the English like as well but it is the Bengal stripe with or without white collar and double cuffs which is very Savile Row, very West End, very Gentleman’s club. Bengal stripes are popular in three shades of blue (from sky to Wedgwood to a royal navy), scarlet, maroon, pink, black (for the fashion forward), violet and wine.
The horizontally striped shirt is popular amongst the natty, at least in the narrower stripes. There always seem to be a couple of takers for this unique and elegant look.
The preferred collar is slightly cutaway. The eyelet collars impress him but sadly aren’t in demand much at the moment.
The button down is still not that popular. The English prefer a slightly more forward collar with a two button cuff for casual.
White shirts are the most popular, and the classic blue end-on-end shirt with that hint of grey in it. A lot of the English guys are buying twills because it is a bit more crisp and robust and keeps out the English damp. Two fold cotton 100s 2×2 fabric is the hands down most popular.
Collar stiffness varies but the English tend to like them stiffer and higher than Americans. They are much too stiff for your hero who prefers an English looking collar with American softness in the interlining. It is small differences like this which detract from the authenticity of the whole and my neck is the more appreciative to me for it.
At Dege, One man cuts the shirts, two ladies make the shirts, one lady does the buttonholes. Dege and Skinner may be one of the last fully bespoke shirt makers in London turning out around 1800 shirts per year.
He is a designer at TM Lewin who oversees the different ranges for their shirts and ties. He also designs special shirts and ties. They do have a range of tailored clothes and also a dress down Friday range.
And what does Mr. Francomb believe the English prefer? Stripes over checks at the moment and very boldly and brightly patterned. The desire is to get away from the uniform feeling. The older and more conservative guys like a plain white or a Bengal stripe shirt in a navy and white or a wine and white. The English definition of “wine” is a slightly faded purplish color and not a strong burgundy or red. Also a small check in a sky or a navy on a white background is very popular, and always has been.
The shirts they offer appeal to a broad cross section of men in all sorts of commerce and age groups. This is mass appeal where the English see reasonably priced English taste readily available to them.
The spread collar in varying degrees will seemingly always reign supreme. Again the reason this collar emerged as the dominant choice for men’s clothes in England is a little bit of a mystery. It is all part of a self fulfilling dressing dynamic; heavier ties with rounder, fuller knots are preferred which gives rise to more open collar spreads. No one really knows which gave rise to the other. However the button down collar is catching on because the English like the Ralph Lauren, Yale college look!
For shirt patterns green isn’t a great seller, brown however is one of those colors which comes in and out of fashion and with a renewed interest in the country element, brown accents on shirts and ties has returned.
In contrast Pink and lilac are very popular, especially when combined with blue. In fact no matter how many permutations of pink and blue and lilac and blue shirts Lewin designs they seem to sell consistently.
The English like to match their ties to their shirts. Not matched too closely but this is an area where they will match more than elsewhere.
It seems like the older guy wants to look younger and the younger guy wants to look older. Ninety five percent of shirt sales are double cuffs. A lot of the bold stripes and checks TM Lewin offers are worn with chalk stripe suits and are favored by the city lads. Those same city lads who were enthusiastic about checks a short while ago are now leaning towards stripes again. Stripes for shirts are for the English what the grin is for the Cheshire cat; a given.
There you have it, the Cheshire cat is after all also striped…or is he checked?