The definition of a good shirt depends on where and how it will be worn. If you're getting in a round of golf with some friends, then a Burberry, Lacoste, or Izod polo shirt is probably perfect. Office attire may demand a handsome Thom Browne oxford or perhaps a tasteful print from Emporio Armani. And if you are just hanging around the house on the weekend, a vintage plaid or two-tone from Campus or McGregor is probably as formal as you want to get.
That said, when it comes to a good dress shirt, there are a few things to look for. Turndown collars should have removable bones, the yoke or back of the shirt at the neck should be split (this is a particularly costly detail if a pattern needs to be matched), and the sleeve should be pleated where it meets the cuff. Cotton is the favored fabric, and weaving styles include poplin, Oxford, and pinpoint, which is a combination of the two.
For the best suits, well-dressed Englishmen head to London’s Savile Row. For the best shirts, Jermyn Street is their destination. Turnbull & Asser requires a minimum order of six shirts, with a delivery time of 12 weeks. New & Lingwood is famous for its brightly striped shirts. And while the tailors at Harvie & Hudson can make you a jacket and pair of pants, they are best known for their shirts.
That’s the formal stuff. For casual wear, perhaps the most collectible category of vintage men’s shirt is the Hawaiian shirt, particularly those made during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Many were made of cold rayon, so-called for its cool, silky feel against the skin, but lots of Hawaiian shirts came in a more textural crepe de chine rayon, as well as cotton and silk.
Patterns ranged from vibrantly colored tropical floral prints to scenes of Hawaii to abstract, monochromatic designs. Vertical patterns that create a border at the buttons and buttonholes are especially prized, and collectible labels include Surfrider Sportswear, Catalina, Kahanamoku, Kamehameha, Kahala, Hale Hawaii, Royal Hawaiian, Duke of Hollywood, and (wait for it) J.C. Penney.
Rockabilly shirts from the second half of the Hawaiian shirt’s heyday are also sought after. Look for two-tone button-ups or pullovers, bowling shirts with the names of strangers stitched above the breast, or shirts in Mid-century Modern atomic-style prints.
Western shirts are cousins to rockabilly. Levi’s signature denim shirt from 1954 was called the Sawtooth, so named because of the jagged shape of the pocket flaps on the front of the shirt. With all dues respect to Levi’s, though, Rockmount Ranch Wear of Denver had been making similar shirts for years...
In fact, what Levi’s is to jeans, Rockmount is to the cowboy shirt. In addition to Sawtooth pockets, Rockmount also makes shirts with Quarter Horse pocket flaps and flapless pockets called Smiles, which should give you an idea of the shape. Rockmount is known also for the snaps on its shirts, which are mother-of-pearl in circles or diamonds, as well as its incredibly detailed embroidered shirts.
Like Levi’s, many Rockmount products are made out of denim. Chambray, which has that similarly blue, denim look, is also a favorite, as is gabardine and even traditional patterns and weaves such as tattersall. Other Western-style shirt makers include Wrangler and Dickies.
Of course some shirts are hot among collectors because they are favored by fashionistas. Robert Graham shirts, which have been around for barely a decade, took off when contestants wore them on “American Idol.” Shirts by motorcycle giant Harley-Davidson and venerable retailer Abercrombie & Fitch are always in demand, as are shirts by relative upstarts like Ed Hardy and Lucky Brand.