G. Bruce Boyer on the Pinpoint Oxford Shirt
I want to talk about the perfect summer oxford cloth shirt, but let’s start with the basics. Cotton oxford cloth is the fabric of choice when it comes to button down shirts. It’s withstood the test of time, is highly durable, and decidedly handsome in its subtle colors and texture. Woven in a pattern in which white and colored threads are alternately crossed, the fabric was originally only one of four different patterns woven by a Scottish cotton mill in the late 19th Century, each given the name of a university: Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale. The oxford weave was obviously the most successful since no one today has ever seen any of the others.
The original oxford cloth, thick and durable long-staple cotton, was first happily married to the button down shirt by English polo players in the closing decades of the 19th Century. The buttons were introduced to keep the collar points from flapping in the face, and the dense oxford cloth was tough but soft, and absorbent enough for athletes. Then in 1896 John Brooks of Brooks Brothers, who took note of these distinctive “polo” shirts while watching a match in England, brought a few back stateside, had them copied in the Brooks shirt factory and introduced them in the store. The shirts quickly became one of Brooks most popular items and the perfect shirt for the new casual approach to dress that was the foundation of the collegiate wardrobe in the early years of the 20th Century.
By mid-century, because of the thousands of ex-service men entering university life, the college look – called “Ivy League” at the time – immediately became the dominant look stateside and was making inroads around the world. The oxford cloth button down was a key element – along with Shetland crewneck sweaters and khaki trousers -- and as its popularity grew and moved from dorm locker to Madison Avenue, little touches of gentrification began to set in. This was the heyday of Ivy, when the style was worn not only by fraternity brothers across the country, but by jazz musicians (think Miles Davis in a green button down on the cover of his 1958 album Milestones) and film stars (the very cool Anthony Perkins, Paul Newman, and Montgomery Clift in almost any film). Slip-on “penny loafers” took on a soupcon of polish with a metal snaffle bit across the instep, natural-shouldered suits achieved a hint of dazzle in dark lustrous mohair, and the button down shirt began to be seen in a more sophisticated fabric, pinpoint oxford cloth.
Pinpoint oxford is a lighter and finer cotton than traditional cloth. It’s woven in the same pattern, but with finer threads which produce a cloth that has a crisper hand and a slight luster, while still managing to keep a sense of the original texture as a reference and elegant point of interest. Pinpoint oxford cloth leans more in appearance and feel towards the finer poplins and broadcloths than towards the slightly coarser weave of the original.
Lightweight and crisp, pinpoint oxford is a perfect summer cloth for a comfortable yet urbanely handsome button down shirt in warmer weather. With its fine hand and light lustre, it’s a more sophisticated shirting, more in keeping with town than country, more city strolls than country rambles. Pinpoint oxford cloth elevates the genre of the button down from an accessory to chore jackets or madras shorts, to linen and seersucker sports jackets and suits. A unique shirting midway between oxford cloth and poplin, it’s one of the summer wardrobe's MVPs.