The history of an icon: The Gant shirt

Built from one Ukrainian immigrant’s American dream, these shirtmakers soon became pioneers in fit, form, function and print

It’s one of the most versatile garments in the male wardrobe: the white button-down collar shirt is simultaneously smart and relaxed, clean-cut and just a little bit louche. It’s one of those go-anywhere, wear-anytime items. Its popularity, however, might be attributed to a group that, historically, has not been among the best dressed of people: students.

OK, so this was in the 1950s, and it was at the elite establishment Yale – but when one Bernard Gantmacher managed to sell his shirts to the campus shop, the Yale Co-Op, their popularity propelled them into becoming a key component of Ivy League style, itself arguably the most influential look in menswear over the last half century. Gantmacher was the Ukrainian immigrant maker behind the Par-Ex shirt company which, pre-war, supplied to Brooks Brothers, that other great exponent of the button-down shirt, and other men’s outfitters. He would also become – borrowing from his surname – the man behind Gant, the company he established in 1949.

Indeed, if Brooks Brothers shaped the basic style of the shirt – lifting it out of the sporting arena, and that of polo specifically, with the buttoning designed to stop the collar flapping in the rider’s face – Gant added some distinctive and lasting touches: a box pleat, to make the shirt more comfortable to wear; a button at the back of the collar, to stop it riding up over a tie; and, perhaps most distinctively, the locker loop on the back. This was so the shirt could be hung rather than folded, though aforementioned students, the story goes, were also said to cut off this loop as an indicator that they had a steady girlfriend.

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It was, however, less these additional details that separated one button-down shirt from another, as the cut: and it was Gantmacher’s shirt-making experience, tempered by his sons’ fashion sensibility, that saw the company’s flagship garment stand out through the just-so roll of its collars. It was, it was said, too complex for competitors to copy.

Not that Gant sat around waiting for them to do so. Such was the appeal of the white button-down shirt that, Gant noticed, women were borrowing them to wear themselves: so the company introduced a version for them. ‘Gant makes shirts for women, not blouses,’ the advertising stressed. And, ironically, as fashions changed, it wasn’t that classic white button-down shirt that the company became best known for, but for its button-down shirts in bold patterns and colours. At one point Gantmacher’s sons even forbade sales staff from wearing a white one to work. Thankfully, that never stopped anyone else from doing so.

Photographer: Matthew Shave; fashion director: Jo Hambro; photography assistants: Chantel King and Lainey Lawlor; fashion assistant: Julia Lurie; hair: Lou Box at S Management using Malin + Goetz and Kiehl's; model: Joel Meacock at IMG Models. gant.co.uk

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