Is the Dress Shirt Dead?

AT THE RISK of triggering horrible, gingham-tinged flashbacks, let’s revisit the Zoom shirt. For at least a year, starting in March 2020, these inoffensive, often gingham or plaid shirts were what homebound men and women wore on video call after video call. Suits were mothballed. Ties? Forget about it. But the button-up Zoom shirt—even if wrinkled, mustard-stained and musty—helped you maintain a modicum of formality while working within sight of your bed. (The patterns helped to hide the food splotches and distract your colleagues from your creases.)

The Zoom shirt was a one-size-fits-all solution to pandemic dressing. It was also, to the dismay of many apparel retailers, unlikely to be a freshly purchased shirt. In the early stages of the pandemic, “we really saw the casualization of that silhouette happening and the dress-shirt business was under a lot of pressure,” said Ken Ohashi, CEO of Brooks Brothers. Shirtmakers point to 2020 as the nadir of the collared-shirt business. (For Brooks, things were especially dire—it filed for bankruptcy in July of that year.) As Zooming men turned to shirts and sweaters that were already hanging in their closets, sales of new dress shirts withered.

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But two years later, as America—largely freed from pandemic restrictions—returns to the workplace, retailers are watching the demand for dress shirts bounce back with force. Proper Cloth, a custom shirtmaker based in New York, reported that, in February 2022, dress-shirt sales were up 84% year-over-year, while Indochino, a Vancouver-based custom clothier, said that in that same month, it sold 191% more dress shirts than the year before. Starting in mid-2021, Brooks Brothers saw what Mr. Ohashi described as a “pop” in its dress-shirt business that hasn’t slowed some 10 months later. (Ties, though, remain a pandemic victim: Brooks Brothers said its necktie business is about 30% below its prepandemic levels.)

Chris Callis, Proper Cloth’s head of design, attributed the growth in its dress-shirt trade to companies’ decisions to summon employees back to their desks. In recent weeks, major players from Twitter to Apple to Goldman Sachs have reopened their offices, signaling a return of hourslong commutes and in-person meetings and the end of wearing the same V-neck sweater for three weeks straight. But as Mr. Callis, not all men are crying into their desk lunches about the need to dress up again. “We’ve seen a good amount of pent-up energy,” he said, adding that many shoppers are saying, “You know, I haven’t worn a dress shirt in two years. Let me get back into those, I’m excited to do this.”

Model Johannes Huebl broke out a dress shirt at the Pitti Uomo menswear fair in Florence, Italy in 2019.


Photo:

Getty Images

For many shoppers, though, the dress shirt of today looks different than it did in the pre-Covid era. “We probably don’t look at the dress shirt as we knew it three years ago in the same way,” said Justin Berkowitz, the men’s fashion director at Bloomingdale’s.

While brands are still seeing demand for the sort of sharp, cotton shirt with a conservative spread collar that Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) favored in 1959’s “North by Northwest,” they’re also offering more-relaxed fabrications. Few men are eager to completely leave behind the appeal of dressing comfortably, a compelling corollary of working from home.

Mr. Berkowitz pointed to brands like Sweden’s Eton, which produces a bumper crop of shirts with looser silhouettes in casual Lyocell-blend textiles. He said these “really lightweight [shirts]…almost feel like dress shirts, but they’re not going to be tucked in.”

Jimish Mehta, 36, a product manager for a healthcare company in Ardmore, Penn., is among those who have traded prim dress shirts for more liberated options. His current working-hours rotation includes chambray shirts and white button-ups in stretch materials. In the summer he peppers in Riviera-ready camp-collar shirts. When it comes to shirts, his attitude is: “You want to be presentable, but you also don’t need to wear a [classic] office uniform.”

Not all men are crying into their desk lunches about the need to dress up again. Many are saying, ‘I haven’t worn a dress shirt in two years. I’m excited to do this.’

Even Brooks Brothers has introduced shirts in stretch fabrics, expanded its linen and seersucker options and invested in cotton knit shirts, which Mr. Ohashi, the CEO, described as “almost like wearing a polo shirt in the silhouette of a button-down.” (He sported a stark white short-sleeve polo during our interview.)

While historically known as a by-the-book, almost proscriptive, retailer, Brooks Brothers has learned to listen to its shoppers, leading to more variety in its offerings. To satisfy customer demand, Mr. Ohashi said, the brand recently introduced black and gray dress shirts. It also rebooted its custom shirt business, letting buyers ponder thousands of different configurations, and in the coming months, will relaunch a made-in-America shirt line, which traditionalist consumers have been crying out for since the brand closed its North Carolina shirt factory in 2020.

Notably, many shoppers are reverting to classic colors and patterns. One of Italian clothier Canali’s current bestsellers is a tame green-and-white striped option. Blue and white hues make up about 50% of Brooks Brothers’ shirt business, while seven of Proper Cloth’s 10 bestselling shirt fabrics are white. (Gingham, meanwhile, ranks way down at 21.) Though ostensibly classic, some of these fabrics are woven with stretch yarns and the resulting shirts can be ordered in looser, off-the-body fits. Said the design director Callis, selling dress shirts “is an endless search for how you can make things more comfortable while still retaining that super professional look.”

Top Collars

Three savvy guys on their best button-ups

Zhu Wang

Concert Pianist

“As a pianist, I was seeking the highest quality fabric with the most flexibility. And I was able to find both in a Dolce & Gabbana Sartoria dress shirt. This shirt was custom-made, so it fits beautifully and is easy to take care of even after years of wearing it. With this shirt, I was able to focus on music-making and bring out the joy of performing on stage.”

Darren Walker

President, the Ford Foundation

“I love Ralph Lauren Purple Label’s classic, cotton, French-cuff shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons. I’ve been a loyal customer for 20 years. They’re the perfect combination of style and function and can be dressy or casual. I wear them with khakis and cashmere.”

Danny Meyer

Founder & CEO, Union Square Hospitality Group

“Since Covid, I can count on one hand the times I’ve put on a tie (including two weddings and a funeral) so I don’t often wear a classic dress shirt. When I do, it’s a blue or pink Zegna. I have them custom-made su misura. Almost nobody carries my (apparently odd) size. I don’t love shirts with visible initials, but Zegna will embroider mine on the bottom that gets tucked in, so no one is the wiser.”

Bang For Your Tuck

Shirts that combine Pre-WFH polish with modern comfort

From left: Traditional stripes on a casual textured cotton. $128, BrooksBrothers.com; Crisp and classic in wrinkle-resistant twill. $95, ProperCloth.com; A luxe pattern that’s neither too dull nor too ‘crazy ’80s banker.’ $350, Canali, 212-752-3131


Photo:

F. Martin Ramin/ The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Deidre Rodriguez

The Wall Street Journal is not compensated by retailers listed in its articles as outlets for products. Listed retailers frequently are not the sole retail outlets.

Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com

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