The Ultimate Men’s Flannel Shirt Guide
For generations, the flannel shirt has been a symbol of tough, enduring masculinity, as well as a motif for nonconformity. To introduce some of this to your own wardrobe, look no further than these workwear specialists.
From the unforgiving valleys of Wales to the 90s grunge movement via the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression, the flannel shirt has been a symbol of tough, enduring masculinity, as well as a motif for nonconformity.
Today, its ‘meaning’ is benign in comparison, but it’s no less an important part of a stylish modern wardrobe, especially in the fall and winter months when it really comes into its own.
So let’s unpack its history a bit before we dive into the details, because understanding where the flannel shirt is from and what its purpose was will help us incorporate it into our wardrobe now.
What is flannel?
‘Flannel’ is a fairly loose term, which is why you can find flannel shirts made from cotton, wool or synthetic fibres. Essentially it describes a material that is reasonably heavy, soft and brushed on one or both sides to create an ever so slightly furry nap.
It’s believed to have originated in Wales in the 17th century, when it was usually made from a coarse wool, and was worn by farmers who needed something warm and comfortable to wear to brave the weather in the valleys. These days, 100% cotton tends to be the fibre of choice, although it can be blended with silk or man-made materials, too.
Being warm, durable and affordable, flannel quickly spread from the hills of Wales to all corners of Europe, catalysed by the Industrial Revolution and the rapid proliferation of carding mills. Back then, flannel was exclusively made from wool. It didn’t take long before the fabric caught on over the pond, where one bright spark called Hamilton Carhartt (yes, that Carhartt) jumped on it in 1889, realizing that cotton flannel would be an excellent fabric to improve the American working man’s uniform.
When he opened his Detroit factory in the same year, Carhartt began by producing what was basically a flannel onesie – designed to be worn as a warm undergarment by construction and railroad workers. Soon thereafter, the flannel shirt was born.
With the advent of World War I, flannel was once again in high demand thanks to the ramping up of military uniform production. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, class barriers in America were broken down and people who were wearing fine suits a year before found themselves wearing the flannel shirts of the everyman.
It became a symbol of American working class solidarity; the shirt you wore to dig your heels in and resume the grinding journey that is the American dream. It was something epitomised by the American folk tale of Paul Bunyam, the hero of lumberjacks known for his strength, speed and skill, clad – of course – in a buffalo plaid flannel shirt. If you championed an honest day’s work in the 30s, you invariably did so in flannel.
Flannel wool deviated from the working class dream in the 50s, becoming instead a symbol of success and sophistication, and flannel suits are still to this day regarded as a classy option. Flannel shirts retained a working class audience until the 90s when the grunge movement appropriated them, creating an aura of non-conformity against a go-getting white-collar society.
Today though, the advent of the internet seems to have homogenised all genres of clothing and dissolved any social inferences in what we wear, making the flannel shirt worn by literally anyone and everyone. It’s a fantastic option in modern workwear wardrobes but can also be used as a great textural option when worn with relaxed suiting.
What to consider when buying a flannel shirt
The average flannel shirt is a middleweight style, heavier than an Oxford button-down but lighter than something like a wool overshirt. Warm and versatile, it’s an exceedingly practical layer, but you don’t have to go for the Goldilocks option.
Heavier flannel, anything around 10oz and upwards, is hardy workwear, probably with a little Americana heritage. Look for an almost blanket-y feel (not fleece) and flat-felled seams, where the edges are rolled back and stitched on the underside of the shirt.
Alternatively, go for cotton (or a blend) if you want something lighter, breezier and easier to tuck.
Plaid and other patterns
Plaid is the most common pattern you’ll find on flannel shirts, especially those with workwear roots. Classics include red-and-black buffalo plaid or Black Watch tartan in green, navy and black – but the options are truly endless.
Modern designers are also experimenting with other colours and motifs, from simple stripes to psychedelic designs. We can’t guarantee they’ll go down well at the ranch.
Traditional flannel shirts are practical, unadorned garments, but as the style becomes more popular, designers are throwing in the odd design detail. Western-style flap pockets on the breast keep the American workwear heritage on point, while an oversized fit might lean more to grunge or hip-hop.
You’ll also find some with camp collars, which have become ubiquitous in shirting in recent seasons.
The best flannel shirt brands for 2022
ASKET is on a mission to encourage us to buy less, but better. The brand does this by producing a ‘permanent collection’ – a selection of well-made, timeless garments that set the foundation of any modern wardrobe. To ensure they never fall out of favour, each piece is free of branding and crafted to the highest standards using the finest fabrics.
And so it goes with its flannel shirts: cut from a soft, brushed, mid-weight (173g/sqm) Italian twill made from 100% organic cotton, they feature a straight fit, classic button-down collar and are available in just four versatile neutrals. The type of shirt that will slot seamlessly into your rotation.
The Real McCoy’s
Japanese vintage specialist The Real McCoy’s reproduces the very best menswear silhouettes from the 1930s onwards, offering an especially great collection of flannel shirts under its 8 Hour Union Label in classic plaid and houndstooth patterns.
Think heavyweight flannel with rolled stitches, referencing the traditional workwear shirts of the 50s American labourer. If you have a penchant for Americana, you’ll love its flannel options.
Filson is one of those iconic brands that has left an indelible mark on the history of American workwear. Founded in Seattle in 1897, it rode the rush of gold prospectors heading north in the Klondike Gold Rush, kitting them out with the warm, rugged kit needed for the bracing elements.
Then and now, heavy flannel shirts in plaid designs are Filson’s hero product, so if you’re on the search for outdoorsy hardwearing flannel, look no further.
The always excellent Drake’s recently moved from its Clifford Street, London premises to rightly take up residence on Savile Row. And while the address has upgraded, so too have the collections.
Famed for its seasonal staples, Drake’s flannel button-down shirts have almost legendary status within the industry. Made in Somerset, England, the flannel is super soft and lightweight, making them a cornerstone of a laid-back work wardrobe or easy-going weekend attire.
You will have almost certainly seen the familiar fox motif on Fjällräven’s rucksacks but did you know that the Swedish outdoor company also makes some of the best flannel shirts money can buy?
Fjällräven produces clothing designed to be in nature, so expect heavyweight flannel made from organic cotton, with reinforced collars and cuffs. With a huge variety of plaid styles to choose from, these are functional flannel shirts designed to be lived in.
Fun fact: Portugal is Europe’s biggest producer and exporter of fine flannel fabric. So when a company with the name Portuguese Flannel comes along, it might be a good idea to check out its garments.
Predictably, this relatively small, fourth-generation-family-run outfit based in Porto does indeed produce excellent flannel shirts. Portuguese Flannel makes its lightweight shirts close to home in the north of the country, favouring organic and recyclable cotton fibres.
Under the guiding hand of Hedi Slimane, Celine Homme has added wool flannel shirts to its new fall/winter collection, referencing the grunge movement of the 90s rather than the working class staple of the 50s. Hence the luxury brand has created super-high-quality plaid styles with two flap patch pockets on the chest.
Whether you think owning the cachet of Celine is worth 5x of any of the other names on this list is your call, but as far as wool flannel shirts go, they’re up there with the best.
As English as it sounds, Hartford is actually a French brand. Founded in Paris in 1979, Hartford specialises in traditional casual silhouettes in beautiful natural fibres including, of course, flannel.
The flannel shirt is at the cornerstone of its fall/winter collections, with the brand producing a number of styles including plaids, gingham and even brushed denim options.
Founded in Brooklyn in 2015, Adsum NYC has developed a cult following for its high-quality staples inspired by the cities and countryside of the American Northeast. Naturally, the brand has put a contemporary spin on classic flannel shirting by using bright vibrant plaid patterns for its two-button work shirts.
Typically constructed from heavy brush 265 GSM custom flannel, Adsum’s shirts feel incredibly soft and really robust to boot, and are perfect for wearing with selvedge denim, chinos or loungewear pieces.