Change doesn’t come easily to London’s most traditional shirtmakers. For decades, if not centuries, their trade has largely consisted of one thing: big, balloon-like business shirts with stiff collars and double cuffs. Recently, however, the brands behind the mullioned store fronts of Jermyn Street are starting to freshen up.
“Yes, Turnbull & Asser makes shirts. We always have and we always will, but I don’t see why the styling needs to be limited to business dress,” says creative director Becky French, who is two years into an ambitious plan to contemporise the brand. Last season, French introduced a capsule of shirts called the Weekend Collection, cut with a looser fit, soft collars and a shorter length to wear (heaven forbid) untucked. She followed this up with the release of a new Officer’s shirt, cut in a blend of cotton and cashmere, with utility pockets on the chest. This design is more of an overshirt, suited to buttoning-up over a crew- or rollneck and worn with selvedge denim jeans or washed cords. “Overshirts have become a staple in men’s wardrobes,” says French. “Guys working in a creative industry are drawn to something less formal, and certainly something less ‘business’ than a classic shirt.”
Just up the street, John Ray’s collection at Pink Shirtmaker features a series of trim-looking overshirts in weighty cotton drill, finished with utility pockets on the chest. Over at Drake’s on neighbouring Savile Row, there’s a mixture of lightweight two-pocket work shirts and cotton-twill overshirts cut with pleated pockets and revere collars. “It’s a terrifically versatile piece,” says creative director Michael Hill. “Perhaps a bit dressier than most casual jackets, but certainly more relaxed than a blazer. It strikes that midpoint between smart and casual.”
The overshirt has its roots in mid-19th-century workwear; a close cousin of the bleu de travail, a hardy yet lightweight canvas jacket worn by labourers to keep their civvies clean at work. Certainly, the current crop of overshirts striding down the spring/summer 2020 catwalks still have functional design details. Dolce & Gabbana’s collection featured overshirts with myriad utility pockets, as did Lacoste’s and Lemaire’s.
“Nowadays, stylish men are looking for a wardrobe that’s comfortable and refined at the same time – informal but elegant,” says Alessandro Sartori, artistic director of Ermenegildo Zegna. “Hybrid pieces like knit-jackets and overshirts are becoming more and more important. We’ve been listening to our customers and working to inject more sports and casual elements into our recent collections.” The house’s overshirts come in loose silhouettes and a range of high-tech upcycled fabrics, and draw on details from blousons and bomber jackets, reinforcing the overshirt’s multifunctionality.
Elsewhere, Milanese brand Valstar offers a similarly lofty take on a traditional design. Its suede overshirt – made in the same goat’s leather as its cult A1 Valstarino flight jacket – is enjoying a similar street cred. “Our overshirts have been a real hit,” says CEO/brand manager Matteo Bozzalla. “They are unlined, so the suede can drape beautifully, and we design them to look clean whether they’re buttoned or not.”
Perhaps this is why suede overshirts are having a moment. Hermès has a series of sleek overshirts that veer into blouson territory, while Ralph Lauren, a long-time proponent of luxe overshirts, adds suede to his collection for autumn.
Making an overshirt in suede is one thing, but for ultimate proof of its investment-worthy credentials, look to New York-based Bode, that creates menswear with a marked artistic streak. A brand signature is the Quilt jacket – a boxy workwear style made with a laborious quilted construction. Founder Emily Bode uses “historical techniques in textiles” and sources vintage materials to make these one-of-a-kind jackets. “Our Quilt jackets are popular because they flatter everyone,” says Bode. “A lot of our customers wear one with tailored pants to the office – it just seems to work for them.”
This story comes full circle with British designer Oliver Spencer, who’s been championing dressy overshirts for seasons. “When most men get dressed for work now, they don’t have to wear a suit, so what does a suit mean to them? It doesn’t need to be a tailored jacket with trousers and a tie, it can just as easily be an overshirt with a sharp silhouette, paired with cropped trousers. I’ve moved away from calling my overshirts ‘workwear jackets’ for this reason – it’s too closely associated with heavy-duty denim.”
Spencer’s Cowboy jacket is a case in point: an overshirt with the clean shoulders and cutaway front of a tailored jacket, finished with a wrap-around belt and four patch pockets on its front. Customers who have worn Spencer’s overshirts, according to the designer, include Ian McKellen and artist Conrad Shawcross – proof of its versatile appeal.