Sailors, farm hands, prisoners, cowboys, mechanics… what do all of these members of society have in common? Apart from being staple characters in low-budget, dodgy adult movies, the answer, of course is ‘chambray’. A fabric traditionally associated with heavy-duty work-wear, chambray is now increasing in popularity amongst sartorial-savvy men all over the globe. I’ll be honest – before writing this article – I had never even heard of chambray, pardon my ignorance! But as I began to look into the notion of utilitarian, functional clothing crossing over into mainline fashion for the modern man, chambray keeps coming to the forefront. So what exactly is chambray?
Chambray (sometimes known as ‘cambric’ or ‘batiste’) is a light-weight, plain weave cotton cloth which was first developed in Cambrai, France (hence the name) way back in the Sixteenth Century. It is designed to be a very hard-working, durable fabric and for all of you technical buffs out there, is woven using a bleached, white ‘weft’ and a traditionally blue ‘waft’ which gives it a criss-cross effect and interesting texture when examined up close – even though it can look much like denim from a distance. The durability of the fabric means that over the years it has been associated with workmans’ shirts and uniforms, particularly in the US, and the traditional blue colouring coined the term ‘blue-collar workers.’ Popularised in the films ‘Cool Hand Luke’ and ‘Hud’ featuring the style icons Paul Newman and Steve McQueen respectively, chambray has become the contemporary fabric of choice and is currently experiencing a huge following.
Clearly chambray is not a new fabric and in fact Ralph Lauren have been creating chambray shirts for years now, whilst it has also been a regular feature in several of Gap’s collections in past seasons. But recent ad campaigns by American Apparel, Gap and Uniqlo show that the high street is already supporting the chambray resurgence, and designers such as Dolce & Gabbana, Alexander Wang and Missoni have also taken the ‘chambray is chic’ line with their recent S/S 2011 collections. In addition, Burberry Prorsum have also included several chambray shirts in their A/W collection for 2010, layered beneath military style trench coats and jackets. Chambray isn’t solely a summer fabric, its adaptability means it will work next season too.
The charm of chambray is its versatility and simplicity. It is a perfect choice for Spring/Summer due to its traditionally neutral, unitone colouring, and the fact it is a cotton-based fabric means it is cool – great for the sweaty summer days we have been experiencing recently in the UK. It is an extremely easy fabric to work with which means designers can play around with different sleeve-lengths, fits, colours, fastenings and experiment with detailing such as pockets, epaulettes and buttons. As Alexis Petridis, Men’s Fashion columnist for the Guardian Weekend writes: ‘You can totally understand its current popularity. It works incredibly well as a summer fabric, being light, soft, smooth and unbelievably comfortable.’ Although conventionally associated with casual workwear, the multi-faceted versatility of chambray means it has now crossed over into more stylish formalwear and has been teamed with smart blazers and bow ties by Dolce & Gabbana in their recent S/S 2011 collection to create a refined, genteel look with urban undertones.
Another aspect of the versatility of chambray is colour. Typically, chambray shirts were a pale indigo blue, but more recently other colours have become available such as red, white and, my personal favourite… grey. American Apparel (http://store.americanapparel.co.uk/) offer a good selection of reasonably-priced chambray shirts in various colours, and JCrew (www.jcrew.com) offer a variety of chambray garments from shirts, to ties, shorts and pocket squares. A particular favourite of mine is the grey vintage chambray utility shirt from JCrew – simple in texture and colour but it still looks effortlessly stylish. This website is particularly great for sparking ideas too as the homepage for the menswear section currently includes a feature with employees of JCrew discussing denim and denim-look products, offering a good source of inspiration.
Chambray is a great alternative to the popular denim shirt during these Summer months as it is thinner and much more light-weight, but it has a similar look and so portrays a similar effect. Chambray also supports several of the trends recently championed by other FashionBeans writers – namely the double denim trend, and the Americana trend – and there are echoes of the nautical trend too. The time for chambray is undoubtedly now!
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