As the zeitgeist in men’s style continues to move away from throwaway fast-fashion – thanks for that, global warming – men are learning to either recycle or repair their clothes. So, returning to sartorial staples, which will last a lifetime rather than being disposed of after just one season, makes a lot of sense.
Enter, the denim shirt. With a history that traces through railroad engineers to rockstars, and as one of the few pieces of clothing that’s genuinely wearable year-round, it’s about as perennial as you can get.
“A denim shirt screams, in a very subtle way, authenticity, it breathes the personality of its wearer,” says Michael Kampe, raw denim enthusiast and creative director of heritage workwear brand Lee Jeans. “At the same time, it reflects a history that’s over 100 years old, yet is so timeless that it will only get better each day.”
Invented as a hard-wearing shirt to ride and work in, its adoption by Hollywood stars mean that it’s inexorably linked to the images of countless style icons, with possibly the coolest denim shirt wearer being reggae legend Bob Marley, who was rarely seen out of one.
Bob Marley, 1975
“Steve McQueen and James Dean are always good references but they’re very historical,” says Kampe. “What is interesting is seeing how denim shirts are being picked up by new bands. The way that it’s styled can give it a completely different twist, which goes to show just how versatile it is. Because of its accessibility, price point and wearability, it’s not bound to a particular occasion either.”
And because there’s a good chance that your relationship with your denim shirt will outlive most marriages, it’s important that you commit to the right one and know how to get the most out of it.
Things To Consider When Buying A Denim Shirt
Affordability notwithstanding, there are still certain things to consider before putting your hand in your pocket. From the softer chambray to the more traditional Western shirt, there’s a lot of thought that goes into this seemingly simple garment.
“The denim shirt can be executed in different weaves but what is particular to it are the specific details on the yoke, the pocket construction, the fit, the finish and stitching,” says Kampe. “Over the past 100 years, those details might have been tweaked by designers, but the general fit and shape remains the same.”
For a true denim shirt that doesn’t make you look like an off-duty rancher — no matter much you want to tap into the cowboy trend — it should be neatly cut, yet not so fitted that it resembles something you would wear in the boardroom.
“The big difference between a tailored and a denim shirt is that a denim shirt will be slightly looser around the neck,” says Kampe, “and it can be slightly more relaxed around the shoulders and the sleeves too.”
Whether you opt for a slim or regular fit depends on how you’re going to wear it. “A slim fit makes for a great layering piece, and works well underneath a jumper, tucked in to create a cleaner silhouette, or with the shirt tails on top of the jeans.” A regular fit cut with a bit more room, on the other hand, is ideal for throwing over a T-shirt or even light gauge knitwear.
Wash And Finish
As with the jeans on your bottom half, the wash of your denim shirt comes down to personal preference. However, given that this is a piece with the capacity to be in your wardrobe for a lifetime, it’s better to go for a finish that won’t feel dated in a couple of seasons.
That means step away from the inherently casual acid wash and instead pick up a slightly smarter shirt in a classic rinse or in the denimhead’s fabric of choice. “As a purist, my personal choice would be a dry denim shirt,” says Kampe. “Similar to wine and whisky, the longer that you have it, the better it gets. Just be aware that white leather couches and car seats are not the best companions.”
If you do opt to make this investment, be prepared to care for it. “With a dry denim shirt, there will be a little bit of shrinkage when you wash it, so try to do so as infrequently as possible, and when you do, make sure it’s by hand, or, if in the machine, on a cool setting.”
Denim shirts can generally be broken down into two types: western and chambray. And here’s where it gets nerdy. “A western shirt is a weave originally made from 100 per cent cotton, but now it can come with a little bit of stretch,” explains Kampe. “Chambray is bound in a canvas weave, so that’s just made up of two yarns, which gives it a softer look.”
In everyday terms, that means thicker western styles work best as part of a casual look, while softer chambray shirts are ideal for sliding under an unstructured blazer in a smart-casual office.
When thinking about the weight of fabric, you should also consider when you want to wear the shirt. “I like a denim shirt in a lighter weight, but it only really works for summer. If you’re looking for a year-round piece, then I would go for one with a weight of 7-8oz,” says Kampe.
Though it may be a simple wardrobe staple with very few bells and whistles, the devil is still very much in the details when it comes to the authenticity of a denim shirt.
“Watch out for pressed buttons on a denim shirt, try to look for Mother of Pearl snaps instead,” says Kampe. “Those on a blue shirt usually have an off-white, grey melange marble effect, whereas black denim looks nice with a broken black Mother of Pearl finish.”
Not all denim shirts will be finished with breast pockets, but on those that are, there’s some serious points up for grabs at the next pub quiz. “Here you should find either a sawtooth shape, which is the two points representing the teeth on a saw, or the classic Western shape which is has a single flap on each pocket.”
Three Ways To Way A Denim Shirt
Despite being a symbol of non-conformity, wearing a lightweight denim and chambray shirt under an unstructured blazer is a move straight out of the menswear playbook. Just remember if adding a tie to pick a texture knitted style over traditional silk. For the tailoring-adverse, there’s ways to look smart without suiting up. “A rinse wash or a dry denim, buttoned up to the top, also looks very formal,” says Kampe. “However, the top tier would be a selvedge shirt with a selvedge pair of jeans. That’s the sartorial equivalent of your best bottle of wine in the basement.” Well, they don’t call it the Canadian tuxedo for nothing.
A denim shirt can be a go-to for all kinds of tricky-to-dress-for events, and can perfectly bridge the smart-casual divide, as long as it’s worn correctly. “[The most important thing to do in this case] is combine different casts and shades,” says Kampe. “If you have a light blue stonewashed denim shirt paired with dark rinse jeans, then you have a nice contrast – you’re talking double denim but it doesn’t look like an idiot’s uniform.”
Unsurprising considering its utilitarian roots, a denim shirt is an ideal layering piece for off-duty looks. “The biggest way that denim and flannel shirts differ from formal shirts is that you can get away with wearing them open” says Kampe, who recommends throwing a vintage-style or slightly oversized shirt over the top of a band tee. “That gives it more of an overshirt feeling and makes it super versatile.” That’s Friday night down the pub sorted, then.
Scotch & Soda
Best Denim Shirt Brands
At the preppier end of the spectrum sits iconic American fashion brand Ralph Lauren. So sure is Mr Lauren of the excellence of his denim shirts, that he’s been known to close his own shows dressed in one as part of a double denim ensemble, featuring rodeo belt and all. Buy Now: £109.00
One of the forefathers of the denim movement, heritage workwear firm Lee Jeans has a superlative selection of denim shirts. The brand’s authentic, premium 101 range is perfect for denim nerds who like their clothing with a side of historical accuracy. Buy Now: £84.99
It’s no surprise that the brand responsible for inventing the denim jacket also does a nice line in denim shirts. While its mainline offering is excellent, if you want to channel the late, great Bob Marley, head to the Vintage section, which comes packed with a serious 1970s punch. Buy Now: £70.00
When the shirts offered by most authentic denim brands are so reasonably priced, it can be a false economy to hit the high street for one. However, Mango is one of the few exceptions, with a selection of everyday styles that are all kinds of basket-fillingly-great. Buy Now: £35.99
Despite starting life as a catalogue company, there’s nothing naff about this preppy brand. J Crew has a seriously stylish selection of authentic denim shirts that are crafted from premium Japanese selvedge. We guess indigo really is the warmest colour. Buy Now: £100.00
The youngest brand from the H&M family, Arket crafts characteristically Scandi shirts from premium Japanese denim – think clean and crisp with unfussy finishes. These are the sort of wardrobe classics that will age as well as a Stilton, but without the pong. Buy Now: £55.00
Another all-American brand backed up by decades of history, last year Wrangler celebrated 70 years of crafting brilliant denim. In 1974, its shirts became the first and only western wear to be officially endorsed by the Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association. And those guys know their denim. Buy Now: £64.99
One of the newer specialists on the market, Replay celebrated its 40th birthday this year, which is relatively young in the world of denim. With a fresh approach to the fabric, the Italian brand’s Hyperflex shirts look truly authentic yet are blended with stretchy elastane to allow you to cut some shapes on the dancefloor. Buy Now: £124.99