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Has the shirt had its day?

Men's shirts - Which? magazine 1974

You might be surprised to hear that Which? used to test shirts. They were so essential that we planned user tests of ‘drip-dry shirts’ for our very first magazine. Does a crisp white shirt still have its place in the office?

In our 1957 test, twenty men wore and washed a couple of shirts every day for a month, recording their comments daily.

However, we waited three years to publish our shirt reviews, as our 1957 records ‘told us a great deal about the wearers, but nothing whatever about the shirts’.

Decline of the shirt-wearing worker?

A good 50 years later, are shirts still essential in the modern workplace? Ironing is a hassle, particularly linen shirts, and in some offices you can feel overdressed if you don a shirt. Getting a good fit can be tricky too – I used to struggle to get an off-the-peg shirt that didn’t garrotte or end an inch before my wrists.

In a straw poll as I write this in Which? HQ, about half of the men-folk are in shirts (myself included, in one of Herbie Frogg’s two-tone wonders). But could the shirt be in terminal decline? Some workplaces switched years ago; in my first Saturday job at a DIY chain I was glad they’d just made the move to polos from polyester shirts and ties.

On the other hand, Norfolk police have just announced that shirts and ties will be reintroduced to its force, as they make wearers ‘more professional, honest and approachable’.

Cultured and colourful clothing

Of course, culture is important to your attire as well. Go to Milan and you’ll see colours in combinations thought impossible outside of a Wonka factory, while in New York I’ve met financiers who have been ordered to change their coloured shirt for a blue or white one.

I don’t understand that. While American workplaces seem to detest extravagant shirts, their fashion also seems to love the pointless; from shirt pockets (useless since the demise of smoking), to buttons to stop collars flying in the face (a mischance I’ve avoided even on the windiest of days).

For those who can pull off more colourful shirts, a pink shirt will apparently increase your salary by £1,000 compared to your blue-shirted colleagues. I’m not quite sure about that, but I certainly don’t just stick to blue or white shirts.

Even in 1974, when Which? once again tested shirts, ‘men [were] escaping from the tyranny of white and doing for other colours to wear at work’. However, they don’t always go down well.

Sometimes you only learn your particular workplace’s dress code when you wear the wrong outfit. Homer Simpson was once sent to an asylum for wearing a pink shirt to work. And while my experience wasn’t quite that bad, lawyers at my firm once told me with a mixture of horror and disgust that clerks definitely do not wear City shirts to court.

Since that dark day a decade ago, I have made the most of the fitted kaleidoscope of shirts that is offered on Jermyn Street, London’s premier spot for shirts. So, as you may have gathered, I’m a fan of shirts. Are you?

Billy says:
1 December 2012

Oh, yes. Heck, I was proud of my tie collection when I was gainfully employed – one or two for every occasion – some even from Thailand. I think the Norfolk cops have got it right. I just wish some forces would give up those American baseball caps, though. But that’s another subject.

I too am a shirt fan when I am out at an occasion. They are simply smart and it is nice to feel “dressed”. I am now ambivalent about ties – I think they are good for more formal occasions, but not needed for casual, providing your shirt collar is not too small. I think being smartly dressed shows respect for the occasion and those present. For mooching about, then it’s t shirts or polos.

Shirt pockets are useless! Are you serious? They are very useful, from holding shopping lists, small pencils etc. The ones with a button are especially good for mobiles, particularly when bending to flush the toilet! Trouser pockets are not so accessible.

Absolutely, Phil. Shirt pockets are ideal for swipe cards, bus and train tickets, and anything that needs to be readily available. For me, that does not include a mobile phone.

I do think that those working in offices and meeting the public should wear a smart shirt.

I’m just off for a Christmas lunch with friends, so I have a smart shirt ready but I will skip the tie for this function.

If you don’t put anything bigger than a credit card in the pocket the shape will not be spoiled, Jon. At work I had to use a swipe card a hundred times a day, and keeping it in my shirt pocket seemed better than having it hanging from a cord round my neck.

I’ve seen many people ruin shirts by putting pens in the pocket.

par ailleurs says:
2 December 2012

I do think it’s very sad that this idea keeps on resurfacing in 2012. Wear a shirt and a tie if you like them. I don’t mind. If you don’t then wear whatever is appropriate for the weather or type of work you’re doing to keep yourself comfortable and safe.
I treat everyone I have to come into contact with respectfully and politely whether or not I’m wearing a shirt and tie and similarly I don’t judge books by looking at the cover!

I agree completely, par allieurs. I think that, while it’s important to make an effort for certain things (job interviews, weddings, court appearances, etc) the expectation that people should always dress smartly for work fails to recognise just how much our working culture has changed over the last 50 years or so. While in the past a typical office job might involve meeting lots of different people and being an ambassador for the company, so many jobs these days are done from behind a computer, where you’re rarely seen outside the building. For these things, comfort is key, and I think it’s important to treat everyone with respect whether they’re in a shirt and tie or jeans and a t-shirt.

It does also make events like weddings all the more fun, as I get to see my usually scruffy friends scrubbing up and making an unusual effort!

Bill Breedon says:
3 December 2012

I’m pleased that dress rules have been relaxed, but I’m very suspicious of politicians and the like without ties, just to try to look like ‘one of the boys’, and I’m disappointed that the situation has changed so much that there’s nowhere to go if you actually like dressing up (saving the opera (but then -only in London).

par ailleurs says:
3 December 2012

Actually Bill you can dress up whenever you like. It’s one of the nicer things about the new freedoms that you can, within reason, please yourself. My habitual smart casual style is OK almost anywhere these days but I’ve got all the other bits and pieces for special occasions especially weddings and funerals.
My profession is that of a musician and our normal dress is white bow tie and evening tails. Most players think it’s strange that we still do it but needs must if you want to get the work! I have to say though that when we play occasional concerts in an open neck black shirt with dark trousers and similar for the women players, I don’t think we sound any different. As I said before, ‘Manners make the man.’

Norman Grant says:
3 December 2012

It is probably wrong, but I assiciate casual dress with a casual approach to work. When I meet people professionally I want their first impression to be that of someone who takes their job seriously and will offer a professional service. I wear a shirt and tie for work. It is important the people have confidence in me as a professional.

I am a shirt with collar-&-tie man and take pride in making the shirts look really smart and crisp. I own only one tee-shirt – it was a present – but I haven’t worn it yet.

A a resident of Norfolk I’m really pleased that the police are going back to smart uniforms, although I would prefer it if they reverted to blue shirts on the beat rather than white ones which used to be only for inspectors and higher ranks. A few years ago they adopted black outfits that were totally unsuited to a rural constabulary. They lost a lot of respect. It also seemed to coincide with a more casual demeanour on the streets and boy-racer behaviour in their cars with sirens blaring whether justified or not.

I’m with Wavechange on the shirt-pocket issue. Indispensable in my view – had to get rid of a couple of shirts that I’d mistakenly bought without checking if they had a chest pocket. Don’t need the loop on the back of the yoke, the silly collar buttons, the gauntlet buttons, the extra button on each cuff, or the fancy placket, so I avoid those types. I wonder why the manufacturers are still supplying a spare button on every shirt: when did one last come off? Manufacturing quality is now so good that it hasn’t happened for years.

Jonathan – I think the yoke loop came over here with the first wave of Ben Sherman shirts in the early 1970’s. If one was in an unpredicted situation justifying a certain amount of disrobing and caught without a hanger, the garment could be temporarily hung on a hook or doorhandle pending resumption of correct attire. Sadly it tempted some people to wear the shirt two days running.