In the 1969 film The Italian Job, Michael Caine’s heist master main character Charlie Croker is picked up from prison after a two-year sentence (by a blonde bombshell driving the Pakistani Ambassador’s stolen car, no less,) and immediately taken to his tailor and then his suitmaker. As one might expect for a fashion-savvy young Englishman, two years is an eternity in trends — his shirtmaker (in a yellow paisley shirt-and-tie combination,) gingerly inspects Croker’s boring old shirts and snidely asks if he was in prison for life. Croker, himself in a new pink floral shirt, is buying armfuls of bright, bold-patterned dress shirts, making up for lost time.
Croker has emerged a free man smack in the middle of “The Peacock Revolution,” the flamboyant and colorful late ‘60s psychedelic menswear event headquartered in London’s Carnaby Street. Supplanting the more detail-oriented internationalist chic of the original English mods, this new wave was loud and wild, and one of the most emblematic and wide-spread items of the day was the colorful patterned dress shirt. Mainly floral, but sometimes paisley or in what was called an “ethnic” print or fabric, these shirts were available not only from swinging ‘60s boutiques like Granny Takes a Trip, Mr. Fish, or John Stephens, but from traditional shirt makers like Turnbull & Asser, who began offering more ostentatious ready-to-wear shirts as well as stocking bolts of flamboyant new patterns for their bespoke clientele. In the world of high fashion, couturiers like Pucci — famous for prints and patterns — launched menswear collections big on bold design.
In modern times, Simon Doonan, one of the judges on the hit NBC crafting show Making It, has long been famous for his love of flowery dress shirts:
He says that on set “everyone” — a group that includes hosts Nick Offerman, Amy Poehler — and co-judge Dayna Isom Johnson — “is jealous of my flowers.”
Doonan’s love of flowery and boldly-printed shirts comes from that same swinging sixties moment in London.
“Trendy dudes like Mick Jagger and Ray Davies started wearing men’s shirts in feminine floral fabrics from Liberty of London,” he explains to InsideHook. “This was very provocative and revolutionary at the time.”
I remember in my own young mod-inspired phase noticing in photographs the late 1960s jump from sharp-cut continental style to flowery psychedelia by quintessential mod band the Small Faces. The style and attention to detail was still there, as was the cockney charm, but the paisley and floral prints on their shirts and Tootal scarves screamed “yes, I would like to take acid and sit under a giant mushroom with an elf.”
I have always understood the bold patterned dress shirt to be a quintessentially English item. And when I asked menswear expert and historian Bruce Boyer about it, he agreed, although he pointed out a few characteristically American expressions of flamboyant shirting:
“When I think of boldly patterned shirts,” says Boyer, “I also think of Indian madras plaid patterns — see Brooks Brothers — Western cowboy designs in the1930s and 40s, the Hawaiian rayon short-sleeved in the 1940s and 50s, the 1950s Ivy League tartans, and the large geometric patterned cabana shirts – with matching shorts and swimsuits.”
And yet the floral or paisley or similarly-small repeat bold-colored pattern shirt never caught on quite as much in America as it did in the U.K., and this might be because it has roots there going back about 150 years. As Doonan mentioned earlier, Liberty of London — one of the great original Victorian department stores — is one of the prime sources for florid patterns. They release patterned cotton lawn fabric seasonally, sometimes including new prints but often reaching back into their substantial archive to bring a piece of history back. Liberty is an especially important department store in the history of fashion — particularly British fashion — because it was the first store to import textiles, furnishings, and decorative objects from the orient, both spurring and reaping the benefits of the various late-Victorian crazes for Chinoiserie, Japonaiserie and Indomania.
Eastern fabrics — even one like chintz that we consider fairly ordinary today – were considered thrillingly exotic by fashionable Londoners. The leading lights of the Aesthetic movement, men like Oscar Wilde and James McNeill Whistler, flocked to liberty for items and clothes dyed in hitherto-rare colors. Around the same time, the Arts and Crafts movement, led by the great William Morris, introduced a new ornate nature-inspired sensibility to textile and wallpaper design. His famous “Strawberry Thief” motif, bearing a repeat pattern of thrushes absconding with fruit, has remained popular since the 1880’s, and Liberty still releases it in various color ways to this day.
Doonan buys his fabric directly from Liberty.
“Whenever I am in London I swing by Liberty and see what fabrics are currently being stocked. Liberty has a massive archive of prints, and vintage designs are often rotated into the mix. This is much more fun than looking online. Then I schlep whatever I have bought back to the US and mail it to Hamilton.”
Hamilton, based in Houston, Texas, is one of the oldest shirt makers in the United States.
“I am sure a Millennial could think of a more efficient way to do this,” he confesses.
Today and for the past several decades no designer or shirtmaker has made floral and patterned shirts more central to their style than Paul Smith, the crown prince of playful British menswear. My own collection grew when I used to work for the company, and each season I would carefully pick several patterned shirts for myself — mostly various floral designs, but also rabbits darting through thorn bushes, birds perched on vines, butterflies, and even a selection of mushrooms on a field of blue.
I like to wear such busy and colorful shirts in two main modes: casually and tieless with white jeans and some kind of loafers or minimalist sneakers like Chuck Taylors (like an Ivy league student in a 1960s garage rock band,) or in that more distinctly English psychedelic banker way with a solid-colored suit (and I mean any color, I love to wear my pink florals with a burgundy suit,) with a short box jacket and narrow pants —boot cut if you’re rocking some cuban heels. If you must have a pattern on the jacket as well, keep it to a very faint pinstripe or a small houndstooth or very faint Prince of Wales check. As for ties, a solid color, either knit or woven, is an obvious and easy choice — usually a darker version of one of the colors in the shirt — although sometimes I like to get adventurous and do polka dots if the scale seems right. On occasion, when my hair has really grown out and I find myself channeling the likes of Traffic or the Jimi Hendrix experience, I might go for a velvet jacket and cowboy boots, but that is to be recommended for advanced dressers only.
One final word: Italians and the French will not approve of your floral or paisley shirts. The French in particular will find them hopelessly vulgar. One night in Paris I met a friend for dinner wearing a plain charcoal suit with a flowery dress shirt I loved.
“Aloha,” he said in disgust, looking me up and down. He shrugged “You are an American,” he reasoned.
So, if you aren’t going to do it for the sake of style, consider adding some big pattern energy to your look as your patriotic duty.
This article was featured in the InsideHook newsletter. Sign up now.