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The origins of the button down shirt : A tale of two countries

England, and London especially, has long been a centre for menswear. Originally, this was mainly the craft of tailoring for a small minority. It was the USA that really pioneered manufactured clothing to a high standard.

Nineteenth century British Polo players asked their tailors to sew extra buttons on their collars to stop them flapping while they rode, but it was John Brooks, the grandson of the founder of Brooks Brothers in the USA, who took this idea and ran with it. He brought out the first button down manufactured shirt in 1896 — it was a whole new concept in comfort and convenience, with its soft construction and washability. Before this, very stiff starched detachable collars and cuffs were the norm for men, the two being washed separately.

Sewing machines had been invented in England in 1790, but again it was the American companies like Fechheimer Brothers that were using these for mass production by the 1850s. When Singer brought out the first Electric version in 1889 the American advances in the mass production of clothing rose to another level, enabling Brooks Brothers to produce the button down shirt in volume.

As well as Brooks Brothers, there were brands such as Arrow and J. Press that also pushed this East Coast interpretation of an English look. They all found their best customers in the University students on the East coast, especially at Princeton. Here were the male style setters of the 1920s. They were influenced again from England by the then young Prince of Wales, who had picked up a love of relaxed American clothing on his tours of the US in the early 1920s.The photographs of him mixing sportswear into formal events and his Palm Beach casual wear served to popularise what became know as the Ivy League.

Ivy peaked post war in the 1950s with the GI Bill and the large increase in college students. Brooks Brothers innovated, being the first to introduce the pink button down shirt which was a radical move at a time when men wore mainly white and blue.

This was also the period where the industrial sewing machine design peaked and has never really been bettered. Companies like Union Special made machines like the single needle armhole that we at Triplstitched still use. It makes the deep flat felled armhole with its distinctive wide spaced single chain seam.

Jazz was the music of choice on campus then and the touring jazz musicians started buying clothes at these campus shops. So when Miles Davis played at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955, he made the old zoot suit look outdated. By 1958, Ivy League had taken over jazz. The documentary film of the Newport Festival of that year, Jazz on a Summers Day, shows Gerry Muligan, Chico Hamilton, Sonny Stitt, Art Farmer and Jimmy Guiffre all sporting the Ivy Style. Button downs had become the coolest shirt to seen in.

The Japanese had been introduced to American clothing post war and by the mid 1960s Ivy had become a hot look. Teruyoshi Hayashida’s photos of East coast college life in the book ‘Take Ivy’ had a major effect of keeping the look alive post 60s, but really that’s another story to be continued. The look was also affecting post war English kids who wanted to modernise.

By the late 60s, Peach & Love, together with Vietnam, had changed dressing completely, and the campuses reflexed this. The American shirt manufacturers tried to develop looks from Italy in the early 70s but without great success. Men’s style in America was to change, but parts of Ivy were to be kept alive around the world.

So early English elite sportswear had become American Ivy style, and all the better for it.

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