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In praise of chambray

Menswear writer Josh Sims takes a deep dive into the roots of this versatile, all- weather fabric.

Some 50 years ago, Robert Redford made perhaps his greatest contribution to style. The film was Three Days of the Condor (1975), in which he played a low-level administrator in the CIA, thrown into a conspiracy. But never mind the plot. It was Redford’s casual panache that resonated: the boot-cut jeans and hiking boots, the tweed jacket and, above all, his chambray shirt.

The shirt spoke of lightweight comfort but also practicality and, in not being a formal dress shirt, a kind of counter-cultural cool. Chambray looked to be, in some sense, the denim of shirting fabrics, gaining character as it aged, as right worn crumpled and untucked or neat – as Redford wears it – with a loosened knitted tie.

Redford was only about 200 years late in his chambray appreciation. The fabric takes its name from Cambrai, the town in what is now northern France from where it originated in the mid-1500s. It’s a lightweight, plain weave fabric, traditionally in a light blue shade, the texture soft and often uneven and appealingly slubby. Originally made of linen – and used for handkerchiefs and shirts in particular, often heavily embroidered – chambray’s cotton equivalent, the fabric that would later be worn so well by Redford, was prevalent by the first half of the 1800s.

Chambray was appreciated by farm workers labouring in the fields for its durability and its breathability – you could stay as cool in a chambray shirt as you might in just an undergarment, but the shirt offered more protection from the sun. For all that it might have originated in Europe, chambray would eventually come to be regarded as a quintessentially American cloth – but then, denim originated in Europe too.

When, in 1901, the US Navy picked both denim and chambray for its uniforms – it continued to use both throughout WWII – the utility of the cloth would also find a market among the factory workers. Indeed, chambray became the definitive fabric of the work shirt, of America’s mighty industrialisation but also of its Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Elvis, it’s said, would wear denim jeans and chambray shirts for the movies – as he does in Roustabout – but refused to wear either garment off-screen because they reminded him too much of his sharecropper upbringing.

In fact, it’s from chambray shirts that we get the term ‘blue collar’ worker, distinct from the ‘white collared’ workers in shops and offices. Of course, by the 1970s those white-collar workers were starting to dabble in chambray too, putting some clear water between themselves and the kind worn by rough, seafaring folk by wearing theirs patterned – much like Thomas Pink’s checked version – and in shades other than blue, like its iteration in dark grey.

Unlike sailors, you may have to take an iron to these to look suitably shipshape for work. Or you can take a page out of Redford’s book and – a testament to chambray’s year-round utility – wear a dark navy sweater over the top. That may be a stretch for the summer, but nobody is going to question the validity of your style references.