Buttoned Down Americans

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Derek, who among other things writes one of my favorite blogs, Die, Workwear!, lamented recently that the specific type of perfection seemingly solely embodied today in the Mercer & Sons polo (a.k.a., button-down) shirt might prove forever beyond his reach because even Mercer’s made-to-order options might be insufficient to shrink the body of the shirt to contemporary tastes.

What do I mean by “perfection?”  I do not mean it literally, of course.  The word is a kind of stand-in, a cypher, among those of us who still remember the old Brooks Brothers before its decades-long slide (evolution, if you prefer) as ownership changed, factories moved, and frankly, its stylistic confidence dissipated.

The pedigree of the Brooks Brothers polo collar is nearly as ancient as that of the lounge suit itself.  Long before its acceptance in Europe, it was in America that the lounge became a plausibleand then ubiquitoussubstitute for the dignity of the frock and morning coats.  In the same way, it was in America that black tie first pervasively became the swell’s evening replacement for the formality of white tie.

And it was in America that the soft, unlined, floppy yet attached, and buttoned-down collar became a sensation among the men that Brooks dressed.  Why?  Simple, really: it was a sporty, comfortable replacement for the stiff, stiff, stiff, oh so stiff, collar.  It is not just about “the roll,” but the exact shape of that roll, and the feel of the collar on one’s neck.

Here is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York City, at the New York state Democratic convention 1927, wearing a Brooks polo with a knit tie and a pinstriped suit:

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Today, some still profess or feign shock at a “button-down” with a suit, or even odd jacket and tie.  If you are an American who says this, you are ignorant of your country’s history. 

The Brooks look, appropriated more widely by smaller shops that served elite schools and colleges, overcame its “Our Kind Dear” beginnings to become the American Look Egalitarian as the GI Bill deposited legions of World War II verterans into the very collegiate stystem that had been part of the old boy network.

You know what came next, of course.  I do not have the space or time to describe it here, but it was wonderful.

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There are innumerable polo collars made today, including by the company that still goes by the name “Brooks Brothers.” Nearly all of them are terrible.  A few are okay in their own way.  Some claim that their bespoke shirtmaker makes a spot-on button-down.  That’s great.  I am glad that they are satisfied…but to me, it still looks not quite right…at least, judging by all examples that I have seen so far.

The good news?  Mercer & Sons makes the old Brooks collar today. 

Aren’t you glad that it’s so simple?

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Mercer will not work for everyone, perhaps, as might hold true for Derek. Nevertheless, if you are interested in what made the old Brooks Brothers polo collar a jewel in the crown of clothing history, you can relive it with Mercer if you can reconcile what they are able to do, on one hand, with your 2013 tastes, on the other.

Good luck.

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