Article of Note: The Oxford Shirt
We delve into the Ben Sherman archives for a history lesson in great British style
Words by Will HALBERT
From polo-friendly, to preppy, to punk, the Oxford shirt has helped style a wide and wonderful range of subcultures over the course of its two-century-strong time in the spotlight, dutifully solving the dress-up-or-dress-down dilemma in the process. But where did it come from? What are its origins? And why on earth is it called an Oxford shirt in the first place? Read on to find out.
Originally created in a Scottish fabric mill in the early 19th century, the Oxford shirt was not a shirt at all, so to speak, but a fabric. One of four, in fact. Owing to some pretty clever marketing, the canny producers opted to name their fabrics after elite universities: Oxford, Cambridge, Yale and Harvard. Ultimately, the other three fabrics didn’t make the cut (if you’ll pardon the pun) while the Oxford began to thrive.
The lightweight and breathable construction of the Oxford fabric made for popular shirting among the Polo players of the British Raj, which is where the shirt was given its iconic, button-down collar. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, and this rings particularly true in the case of the Oxford. Polo players would often add their own buttons to keep their wayward collars in check during windy games.
‘Owing to some pretty clever marketing, the canny producers opted to name their fabrics after elite universities: Oxford, Cambridge, Yale and Harvard.’
From there, it wasn’t long before a host of American Ivy Leaguers adopted the shirt and the polo-related prestige that came with it. Over the course of the 1920s and 30s, the button-down Oxford became a staple of preppy style and sophistication.
Enter Ben Sherman who, upon returning to the UK from The States in the early 1960s, saw a demand for the Oxford shirt in the wake of London’s emerging jazz scene. Taking cues from the calm and collected cool of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, Londoners were on the lookout for a statement shirt, and Ben Sherman was on hand to provide the goods.
A real dress-code chameleon with style and attitude to spare, the Oxford has since become the heartbeat of the Ben Sherman wardrobe, representing one of the UK’s most enduring style staples. From the Mods, to the Punks, to the Ska fiends, the Ben Sherman Oxford shirt has enjoyed some serious time in the spotlight. And in many ways, it feels like it’s just getting started. EJ