Sartorial Stereotypes: Checked Shirts

“Immediately.” That is the answer to Barima’s question which he proffered upon reading my piece on stripe stereotypes. I hadn’t planned to write something on the subject he was suggesting so soon, but I am a firm believer that things are better and far more satisfying in pairs; no one would wish to be the owner of a sadly single and yet singularly splendid patent shoe.

And of course if there will be discussion of shirt patterning, there must be discussion of checks. For it is the case that checks have as much if not more relevance than stripes for the gentleman of today. Why is this? Well, it is simply that checked shirts are far more prevalent than they used to be and dare I say, far more popular.

The irony of a checked shirt is that the wearer might purchase for superficial individuality whereas in reality, the heritage of a check lies with a man’s identification with a group and a purpose. Tartan became a popular fabric with Sir Walter Scott’s clever diplomacy; a fabric forever identified with all Scots, of both High and Lowlands, despite the fact that the peoples of the latter had little to do with the pattern at all. Further Anglicisation of the Celtic fabric led to large numbers of Victorians wearing check trousers with morning coats – something even the Beau cannot have envisaged.

However, to check a trouser is one thing, but to check a shirt is another. Until quite recently, plain white was the monopoly tone in terms of smart clothing. Checked shirts were worn in the country with tweeds, or they were worn by labourers who wore mixed colour shirts to conceal the sweat, dirt and grease.

Gentlemen of the metropolis would certainly not choose any checked fabric. The breakaway from this stiff formality of perpetual ivory was to wear white collars with coloured shirts. At first the shirts were modestly coloured – calm blues and subtle stripes – but the licence had been given; experimentation was inevitable. There are now thousands of checked shirts acceptable for wear in a smart and even formal situation.

Checked shirts have, in recent years, taken over as the ’trend’ for the City; a banker in 1912 would have worn a bowler, a dark morning coat, spongebag trousers a sober tie and, importantly, a white shirt. In 2008 he is far more likely to wear, though a dark suit and sober tie, a natty checked shirt. And like the stripes, the check he enjoys to wear will say a lot about him.

The Partner

The Partner has been at his Magic Circle firm for 13 years. He was one of the more colourful and interesting of the graduate trainees he joined with and his love of theatrical patterns has not altered over the years.

He wears checked shirts almost exclusively; even at the firm’s Christmas function he could be spotted, charming the young female associates in a subtle black and white check evening shirt. Though generally genial, his bad temper, caused by a rivalry with his Gonville & Caius room mate who now works at Goldman Sachs, is down to the fact that said room mate frequently gloats via monthly email on his astronomical financial success. The Partner, though he works equally long hours, gets a mere fraction of the remuneration.

On the more gloomy days when such clouds of despair and envy hang over him, he stays away from his characteristically playful colours and wallows conservatively in a blue gingham check.

The Oxford Don

The Oxford Don is a rare beast these days. The faculty has been ‘freshening up’; younger staff, American staff, are all the rage at this venerable seat of learning. The wizened and pale Don stumbles through Radcliffe Square as a point of comfort; the grand buildings are the only faithful companions he has left, the only friends of youth still standing.

His checks are conservative and sensible, reflecting his fireside-reading-knowledge of town and country-town standards; tweeds and checks in Oxford are a traditional uniform. Often called into London to lecture, the Don prefers to decline such visits on the basis that London is too far removed from the metropolis he once knew. He prefers Oxford’s beauty and memories and even favours purchasing from the local shirt retailers on High and Turl Streets.

The Architect

The Architect is tremendously busy and far too important to wear a tie. He likes checked shirts for the mathematics and the colour variation; plain shirts are a blank sheet of paper, the result of a designer without a brain. He wears them simply, top button undone with a moleskin jacket and a pair of cords.

While hardly considered chic, his mighty range of shirts are certainly well made and economically sensible – rather like his buildings. The majority are buttoned down – “It’s more practical” – and when meeting clients he ‘smartens’ himself up by, curiously, buttoning the top button. A rival architect in Japan had done precisely the same thing and secured the contract – he has never taken such a risk since.


  1. John said:

    Wow, what glasses are those in the Architect picture.
    I really want a pair of glasses like those.

    April 15, 2008
  2. Nicola Linza said:

    In general, I have to agree with you Winston, regarding all three types you have presented. I have to say I can relate to each of them, depending on the given day, even if I prefer striped shirts to checks. I too have my plain white shirt days, and find myself far more conservative and traditional in my business dress. And you? Nicola

    April 16, 2008
  3. Nicola
    I relate far more to the Partner and the Oxford Don. The Architect shirts are pleasant enough, but I am too awfully stiff for soft-roll, button down collars. I have the odd button down shirt, but I rarely wear them. I adore plain white shirts, as long as they are fitted. And I am a greater fan of stripes than checks. My ‘stable’ of checks is rather conservative – in style and colour, whereas my striped shirts can sometimes be rather bright. I am very traditional in my business dress and I much prefer to employ ‘fashion’ shirts (small collars, very fitted) and ties (skinny and very slim) in the evening. I am also extraordinarily traditional when it comes to weddings (about which I am soon writing).


    April 16, 2008
  4. Nicola Linza said:

    As I thought Winston, we are primarily on the same page, again. Yes, I too adore a fitted bright white, and often prefer a bright stripe on a shirt (why do it otherwise?) so good show. I have very few checks also. I have found as well for our look – very tall, dark hair, pale skin, patterns have to be carefully selected, and color is very important in the tie selections. I do not know how you feel about it but most variations of beige do nothing for me. Oh yes, I wanted to mention in the previous email that I agree with John. The glasses are great. I do not know what face they would compliment, they are a very angular, they would have to be tried on to know.


    April 16, 2008
  5. Nicola, I couldn’t agree more – shirt patterns do need to be carefully selected. Favoured suit type will be a factor, as will smaller issues such as tie-knot type and use of accessories. Wildly checked creations with excessive accessorising and a window check suit can make one look rather like a clown who has stumbled through an ice cream van. With check shirts, I much prefer plain knitted ties or very small patterns. On occasion, the braver days, I will mix patterns brazenly – however, by my own admission it is truly hit and miss. Beige is an unfortunate colour; forever associated with the elderly and hospital corridors. There is no doubting it has its uses, accompanying pink rose or mid blue. Beige also seems to drain what little colour there is in my cheeks between September and May, but truthfully, I wear little of it.

    April 16, 2008
  6. Barima said:

    1. I’ve been directly responded to (and namechecked, no less) in-article. Thanks, Winston, that was very cool of you. Do I owe you a drink or something?

    2. I was pretty amused by the character sketches this time round. Worthy of Damon Albarn (and whether you like the man or not, he has a way with the genre). This has all the hallmarks of a fun recurring feature every once in a while

    3. I found a lot less scope for crossover this time, personal or otherwise. The checked shirt is difficult for some of those who actually note what they’re wearing, and here in the City, you don’t get much more than the gingham of the Partner and a few of its cousins in the picture above (all practically forming the lifeblood of TM Lewin’s shirt collections). And as pictured, they don’t usually inspire the most exciting ties (subject for a new article, no doubt). I’m a fiend for pattern mixing and I take this to be a sign of fear or conservative safety in assuming that the checks are enough to draw attention
    I’ve only a couple in 2 of the categories, having discarded a flirtation with the architect look during my teens. Pink gingham from column one and a white number with a red and blue microcheck from column 2 that I’m immensely fond of. It’s a fun look if you can get it right

    April 18, 2008

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