A Menswear Memoir

The Present and How It Got That Way

 

Gant and The Button Down Oxford- A History

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  In Fall 2014 the Gant collection is the centerpiece of our sportswear offering, and the Swedish-owned company produces the kind of modern-fit, easy, natural styling that our customers love. But the heritage of the name goes way back, and like so many things in our industry, is intertwined with the Hilton name from just about the beginning.  

   Gant didn’t invent the oxford button down, but they sure popularized it, the way my old man did the natural shoulder sport jacket. My father and Marty Gant shared a showroom at 200 Fifth Avenue, across from Madison Square, in the early days of Ivy-League. This kind of thing was happening all over at the time. Old manufacturing firms were finding new life in the pursuit of this emerging preppy phenomenon. Norman Hilton was sending orders into the sixty-year-old Joseph Hilton business back in Linden and Marty Gant was selling oxford cloth button downs by the hundred-dozen.

   Their original name was Gantmacher, and I suppose from this that somebody somewhere along the line had been glove makers back in the old country, but in New Haven, where they’d wound up, the made shirts. Now New Haven, you must understand, was to preppy fashion what Kansas City was to jazz. The likes of Cole Porter and other Eli dandies made the Yale scene synonymous with refined style. An expression at the time, “white shoe at Yale,” summoned an image of a blazer-clad Whiffenpoof in full regalia – finished off with white buckskin shoes, and signified the highest level of sartorial discrimination. Eventually, the in-crowd just said “Shoe!” to describe such to-the-nines dressing, as in, “Look at Jonesey! Definitely shoe.”

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   All of the tailors and shopkeepers in New Haven at the time were enriched by the aura of what I’ll call pure prep-essence. Langrock’s, a New Haven tailor, opened a store in Princeton to cater to Tiger undergrads. J. Press ventured forth to Cambridge, New York and even far-off San Francisco. But these were modest affairs compared to Gant, who rode this wave into multi-million-dollar, mass-market distribution; the brand became a household word. 

   A long-gone Scottish textile company once named their four basic weaves after institutions of higher learning; apparently there was once a “Cambridge,” a “Harvard” and a “Yale,” in addition to “Oxford,” which was the only one to really catch on. There is also a basic style of shoes called “Oxfords.” Interesting, right? Perhaps something about the name itself leads to persistent popularity. I can’t think of anything we wear now referred to as a “Yale,” despite the influence New Haven once had. In any case “Oxford” is a type of weave. It is a one-over-one construction, the most basic weave there is. Regular, traditional oxford is kind of heavy, and has a richly firm drape. A later variant of the cloth, called “Pinpoint oxford” is of the same construction, but done with much smaller yarns, so that the cloth is lighter and has more flexibility. Both feel soft and comfortable; both hold their shape and wear well. Regular, heavy oxford, though, looks like nothing else. It’s The Real Thing. Pinpoint is more comfortable around your neck, especially with a tie. The colors, especially blue, are soft and versatile because the vertical or warp yarns alternate color-white-color, and so the overall look of a colored oxford shirt is softer than strictly solid cloth.

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   Mr. Gant had simply re-packaged a longtime Brooks Brothers staple, the heavy cotton plain-weave “Polo” collar shirt, so-called because it was said to have been invented for players of the sport who sought to avoid having their shirt collars poke them in the eyes when they were leaning over the their ponies’ flying manes, mallets at the ready. Back then there was no Brooks Brothers in the future shopping mall off the as-yet-unbuilt nearby interstate, no 800 number to call, no Brooksbrothers.com; so the market for fifteen dollar (expensive!) Gant button downs was virtually unlimited.

   Button-down collar oxford shirts came to be the same kind of thing as jeans. These days a guy can wear a button-down oxford with jeans, khakis, linens, or fine dress trousers; even with shorts. He can wear it with the sleeves rolled up and the two top buttons open for a casual look, or go so far as to put one on with hard finish worsteds and a pattern sport jacket, with grey flannels, a navy blazer, and repp tie.

   I’m not much for any dogmatic or doctrinaire approach to dress. People should try occasionally to be creative, to carry off things that are unusual and innovative and personally expressive. So if someone says Thou Shalt or Shalt Not Wear This or That they thwart the creative drive that can make someone able to dress really well. But I will say for the record that most regular guys who wear a button-down collar shirt with a suit look goofy, like they just happened to have a clean one. It used to be done, by newscasters in their Madison Avenue best, in the Natural Shoulder Era, but no more. A suit is a level 4 thing, and a button down shirt is, even worn with a navy blue blazer and a natty tie, always a level 3 item. But… It’s a free country. Be my guest. Have a go. Prove me wrong.