The chambray shirt is everywhere this summer and the trend is set to last well into the winter (and probably next summer too). Come to think of it, chambray was trending last year and the year before that, too. Which is all the proof you need that it’s not a trend at all, but rather a fully-verified menswear staple.
It makes sense: the style been around since the 19th century. Yet what would once be considered an informal, workwear fabric is now perfectly acceptable to wear with tailoring – it’s arguably the most versatile type of shirt around.
So if you’re undecided on whether you need one (you shouldn’t be), let us detail how a good chambray shirt can up your casual game as well as breathe new life into an old suit. You’ll never doubt the humble fabric again.
What’s The Difference Between Chambray And Denim?
“Chambray is a cousin to denim”, says Massimo Caligaris of premium Italian mill, Canclini. To get a bit nerdy, whereas denim has a diagonal twill weave, chambray is a plain weave made with a coloured warp (the vertical yarn) and a white or ecru weft (the horizontal). Like denim, it is best known in indigo shades of blue but it can also be realised in other more unconventional hues.
It is generally lighter than denim and is usually made of cotton, linen or cotton/linen blends – it’s ideal for summer shirting as the plain weave and natural fibres breathe and allow cool air to pass through. There are tactile benefits, too. It’s typically very soft and smooth to the touch due to a finishing process where the cloth is heavily pressed, which also gives it a subtle sheen.
The combination of two colours of yarn is popular in classic shirting patterns and is used in the weaving of Oxford shirt cloths, but what sets chambray apart is how it ages. With time the cloth will fade and create a unique patina that has character and style. Unlike denim jeans however, you are obligated to wash it after every wear.
Why You Need One
Traditionally, a chambray shirt was only to be worn at the weekend with chinos or in the workshop, due to its inherently casual nature. Elvis, Steve McQueen and Robert Redford have all worn it onscreen, almost always dressed down.
But with traditional dress codes blurring, there is no reason why the cloth can’t be smartened up today. This is particularly the case with finer versions which show less visible texture and sit perfectly between smart and casualwear.
When worn as a classic shirt, chambray can be styled with either tailoring or sportswear, but it’s worth remembering how the choice of collar and pockets dictate how formal it is. So if you want something that you can wear from the beach to boardroom, keep things neutral and choose a simple button-down collar with no pockets or fancy detailing. For something smarter, opt for a point or semi-spread collar and for complete casual go for an unlined collar and twin chest pockets – as per the classic workwear style.
4 Ways To Wear A Chambray Shirt
Wearing a spread collar chambray shirt with a proper suit is both sophisticated and slightly subversive – traditionalists may prefer a simple white or pale blue dress shirt with old school tailoring. The look is modern and is an ideal way to make your tailored outfit less business-like – perfect to wear for a wedding or another festive occasion.
This look is not constrained to the warmer months; a blue chambray shirt with a grey flannel suit is sublime, especially when finished with a textured tie in a plain cashmere. Avoid woven ties that are too dressy and wear brown suede shoes to complement the textures. This is the easiest way of way updating your old favourite suit. NB If you are wearing chambray with a blue suit, make sure it is a deep navy and not too bright – you need the shirt to be lighter than the jacket.
This is the definitive smart casual way of wearing a chambray shirt – it will take you from business casual to a smart weekend brunch. Pair your shirt with an unstructured brown blazer in a lightweight, unlined hopsack or mesh-weave for maximum comfort. If your shirt has a button-down collar, leave unbuttoned and wear a bold striped tie in a textured silk, ideally in wide stripes.
Alternatively, you could wear a printed silk tie in paisley (it’s coming back, honestly). Finish the look off with a pair of lightweight wool trousers in grey or cotton chinos, which can be slim but not tight. You may wish to roll the hems a little higher in the summer months to expose your tanned ankles and expensive loafers.
Like your favourite jeans, a well-aged and frayed chambray shirt is a thing of beauty and, incidentally, is the perfect shirt to pack for your summer vacation. Wear in the evening with linen trousers for cocktails and dinner or roll the sleeves up and wear over your swim shorts for a casual al fresco lunch by the pool.
Go for a chambray shirt in a regular cut as opposed to slim – the effect you’re after is louche and casual and not trying too hard. You can even wear your shirt as an unbuttoned summer layer over a T-shirt for travelling.
Blue Collar Workwear
Take your chambray shirt back to its roots and put the ‘blue’ back into ‘blue collar’. Wear with a robust pair of selvedge jeans and sturdy boots (such as pair of RM Williams or Red Wing) or chunky Derbies and let the denim and chambray combination do the talking.
Five Of The Best Chambray Shirts
This Reiss shirt has an economy of design that creates a blank canvas for the wearer to inject their own style. Wear with a suit, blazer, chinos or trunks. This is the premium high street brand at its best.
As you might expect from the famous denim brand, the Levi’s chambray shirt is a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n roll. It’s also made with premium chambray that will age to perfection.
This is the classic workwear style shirt that’s been floating around the menswear scene for the last century or so. It’s versatility – and practicality – has hardly dwindled: today the twin chest pockets are ideal for storing sunglasses and a wallet, rather than the tools of yesteryear.
Made in Somerset with premium pure cotton chambray, this Drake’s shirt boasts its signature long button-down collar and an easy cut. It is great worn casually or more formally and will become an instant favourite.
A contemporary take on the chambray shirt that harks back to worker styles of decades gone by, this Beams Plus example features short sleeves, a button down collar and a half placket, making it the ideal alternative to a summer polo shirt.