Men’s style writer and photographer Lee Osborne on the enduring appeal of the denim shirt and how to accessorise it.
A view to a Twill
The humble work shirt that went onto sartorial world dominationWhile jeans have always been the mainstay for denim there still remains some conjecture as to the true birthplace of the world's most popular fabric. It is believed it was born out of the great Roman city of Nîmes in South Western France (denim being the abbreviated version of De Nîmes (of Nîmes)). Their serge (a durable twilled woolen or worsted fabric) was classified as a twill weave, originally a mixture of wool and silk devised by shepherds in the Montagne des Cévennes northwest of the city. It’s believed they wove yarns and threads of indigo with white silk and wool – materials which were plentiful in the mountains – to create a cloth that was hardy enough for the purpose of shepherding. But this wasn’t before the revelation that the artisans of Genoa in Italy, in what was claimed to be an act of serendipity, had been working on a similar twill themselves, christening theirs ‘jeans’ (from Gênes, the Gallic name for the city). However, the fabric weavers of Nîmes knew they were on to something unique as their version was unequivocally more sturdy. Using indigo to dye the warp threads blue, the weft threads were left untreated in their natural white colour. The process became known as Serge de Nîmes (‘twill of Nîmes’) and the rest, as they say, is history.
While jeans led the way for denim, another iconic garment crafted from the same fabric was gaining plaudits worldwide. The denim shirt has gone from being a utilitarian work shirt favoured by horse ranchers, lumberjacks, and even soldiers in the American Civil war, and been transformed into a cultural icon by Hollywood-bound rodeo cowboys. As style icons go, it has adorned the shoulders of many a silver screen star, notably Robert Redford who wore double denim with aplomb both on and off-screen and was one of those responsible for creating the demand for denim shirts worn casually. There was a real demand by wannabe cowboys and film buffs to look like their on-screen idols, but these garments were not easily accessible to the average Joe on the street like they are today. Realising demand for the upper half was catching up with the lower half, the big guns of denim like Levi Strauss, Lee, and Wrangler were the early pioneers, delivering shirts to the masses that were born out of hard graft, sturdiness and practicality - qualities their loyal clientele could clearly associate with.
Modern-day incarnationsThe denim shirt is arguably one of the most versatile pieces of a gentleman’s wardrobe. Ask any sartorially-savvy gent and they will have a couple in their armoury. They may well have a Western-style version with point collar, breast pockets and press-stud buttons which they wear tieless to channel their inner John Travolta, but they will no doubt have a light or dark denim spread or button-down collared version when a tie is required. Its appeal, as well as being the ultimate in soft-comfort shirting, lies in its inherent neutral hue which will go with absolutely any colour or patterned tie you throw at it while sitting admirably under a coloured sleeveless sweater or cardigan - or just about any colour sweater come to think of it, even a crew neck when worn tieless. It doesn’t try to compete, it just sits there unobtrusively as a blank canvas, awaiting the creativity of the wearer to perfect sartorial artistry upon it. Layer a tweed jacket over the top and you’re on another level. I have always been a fan - in fact, I distinctly remember wearing a light denim shirt to the first-ever Pitti I attended layered beneath a burgundy cardigan, navy knitted tie, tweed jacket, and grey flannels. What I’m saying is that it will never be out of fashion and will look just as good at the next winter Pitti (the day can’t come soon enough, whenever it may be) as it did the first time you wore it there 10 years ago.
One of the beauties of a denim shirt, and one of the reasons I guess I reach for one over almost any other style of shirt, is that it immediately casualises an outfit even if you’re wearing a tie. And it will age well even if you don’t - basically, it will get better, and softer, with every wash. And if ever it becomes too light or faded you have the option to dye it back to its original colour.
How to accessorise your denim shirtIt’s a tough job, but if I had to pick just one tie from the Amidé Hadelin repertoire to pair with a denim shirt, it would have to be this incredible orange madder number.
Equally at home paired with a light or dark denim, although ideally vere more towards the darker shade for the ultimate eye-popper. But there are other options of course like this sky blue silk tie which will look sublime against a darker denim. As will this mid-blue Irish linen glen check for a more monochromatic look; this Orange Label striped grenadine tie in olive or if you favour something more conservative then this Fox Brothers 6-fold check tie in russet - obviously the lighter denim will give more of a contrast to the more subtle darker denim but both work in
If you want to dispense with the tie for an open-neck look why not pair your denim shirt with a set of braces which will bring texture and contrast to the fore. Like I said before, due to the neutrality of the denim, any colour, texture or tone will fit the bill here, but my personal picks are these Limited Edition Holland & Sherry herringbone tweed braces in either sage green or lilac; or something a little less punchy like these divine tobacco-coloured F.lli Tallia di Delfino wool braces will contrast just as well.
This accessories edit illustrates the versatile role the denim shirt plays in the realms of classic menswear - the pairings offer up infinite possibilities to look stylish in casual or more formal scenarios. Given their diverse histories, denim and tailoring have proved to be a match made in heaven, and long may that continue.
Lee Osborne spent 10 years working on luxury travel and lifestyle magazine Condé Nast Traveller where he was Creative Director before establishing his own luxury content studio, Osborne Creative. A frequent traveller, he is founding editor of men's style blog Sartorialee: dressing the globe-trotting man, and regular contributor to The Rake, Plaza Uomo, The Daily Telegraph and Harrods magazine.
Follow Lee Osborne on Instagram @sartorialee and explore https://sartorialee.wordpress.com for more travel and style inspiration.