Yet if retailers are to be believed, the City shirt is now brighter and worn with bolder ties than ever before. The subtlety is in the fabric, cut, collars and (essentially double) cuffs, which require silk ties and cufflinks - decisive factors in pointing out the wearer's net worth.
All our panellists are connected with the City in some way. Nick Raffin (collar size 1412, "sleeves are always too long for me", favourite shirtmaker Paul Smith) is a systems analyst for a group of commodity brokers. Alan Stewart (collar size 16, "I'm a Lewins man - they fit me well in every way") is director of his own company. John Warren is a furniture designer whose workshop and clients are in the City (collar size 16, "but I'm tall and sleeves are often too short for me," favourite shirtmaker "all sorts - I can get away with more because the clients think I'm arty"). Donald Hudd (collar size 1612, another tall, long-limbed consumer who resorts to having his shirts made to measure) is a management consultant.
We were intrigued to find out what direction manufacturers and wearers feel the City shirt is taking, who is producing the best garments and who is wearing them. We asked retailers to nominate the shirt they thought best typified their own range as well as this year's fashion trends and then asked our panel to comment on each shirt's fit, appeal and cost.
Blue two-fold cotton shirt, pounds 59
"I like Hackett's clothes generally," sighed Alan Stewart, who was disappointed with this conventional blue shirt. He thought it overpriced, despite its comfortable body shape, and said the collar was too cut-away. Nick Raffin picked it as his favourite. "It's versatile and attractive with traditional City appeal," he explained, praising the fabric and cut.
The two tall guys found the cut narrow in the shoulders and short in the sleeve, and were therefore not impressed by the tuck at the top of the sleeve which allows you to let it down, since this wouldn't help the overall fit. John Warren said, "It's a pity, because this is a wonderful shirt - the collar and cuffs are beautiful, sort of moulded rather than tailored." He dubbed it "a beautiful classic English shirt for narrow- shouldered Englishmen."
Pink Prince of Wales two-fold cotton poplin shirt, pounds 40
The name of this mail-order company, at least, was well known to all our testers, even if, like John Warren, they had "had the catalogue in the house for ages without ordering a shirt - but now I will." The pink colour, which Nick Raffin confirmed "is very well-established in the City wardrobe," nonetheless proved "a difficult colour" for him, and while Alan Stewart was gratified by his colleagues' admiration ("It was the first time I've ever worn a pink shirt"), Donald Hudd disparaged it as "the perfect colour for a bucolic rose," thus splitting the panel down the middle. None of this distracted them from the main point, however, which was that, on the plus side, the shirt has "surprisingly excellent proportions", "a nice long tail for the taller man" and a choice of two buttonholes on the cuff, which allows you to make the sleeves fractionally longer or shorter.
On the negative side, the stiffeners in the otherwise nicely shaped collar caused some testers to complain about tips which turned up, and the "special deals" that are often quoted in the Tyrwhit catalogue were thought to "cheapen the brand".
Blue herringbone shirt in superfine two-fold cotton poplin, pounds 47.50
The blue herringbone supplied by Thomas Pink came with its own fashion statement, being thought by the company to epitomise the "plainer fabrics - with a twist" which have outpaced the bold stripes of the Eighties. It's one of its "faux" plains, which look like a plain, solid colour from a distance, but up close have an interesting texture or subtle pattern. "I used to buy a lot of Pink's shirts, but I grew to dislike their square, blockish styling and heavy fabric," reported Nick Raffin. He was "pleasantly surprised" by this latest shirt's quality and wearability, illustrating the dividing line between those men who actually prefer light fabrics next to their skin "especially if you're stuck in a suit all day", as opposed those who find it an indication of poor quality.
John Warren characterised it as "a shiny finish which doesn't look or feel like cotton, which is a shame, because it's nicely made and comfortable to wear" and Alan Stewart also thought the shininess "a bit flash". One of his Scottish colleagues dismissed it as having "nae class". City shirts in general, it was agreed, should have a collar which is wide enough to display the knot of your tie, but not so wide as to look "spivvy" and this one failed the test.
Purple polyester/cotton shirt, pounds 85
Predictably, this deep-purple shirt with concealed buttons by trendy suit-maker Ozwald Boateng caused the most violent reactions among the panel - not all negative. "Now this is what I call a City shirt," declared Nick Raffin, "and that city is Torremolinos." He, like the other testers, noted the "very trendy Seventies styling, right down to the 65 per cent polyester content. A shirt like this demands a very stylish and affected look - fortunately, the wearing of a shirt like this is precluded by current City regulations." In fact, Boateng shirts "look fantastic" with high- necked Boateng suits, as Alan Stewart observed wistfully from his promenades past the designer's shop at the end of Savile Row. Nor is it hard to see why Boateng, a tall, slim, cool black dude, should promote sizzling colours (electric blue is a best seller) which our panellists were simply too old and pallid to wear. "The colour is vile," said John Warren, "add a ruffle and it would suit Engelbert Humperdinck down to the ground." Donald Hudd didn't get it either, saying it was "a brash hippy shirt, needing only flared trousers, sideboards and a bar to prop oneself against. Perfect for an icon of mafioso sartorial elegance with gold necklace and mandatory Rolex."
But Alan Stewart reported that, despite his embarrassment at meeting clients on the street, who gave him "very odd looks," the women in his office "got very excited the day I wore it" and thought it would be great for "special showbiz occasions."
Gingham yellow/red two-fold cotton poplin shirt, pounds 45
TM Lewin - famously of Jermyn Street but with a flourishing mail-order business - stuck its neck out by supplying this orange-seeming shirt, which it felt typified a taste for smaller, subtler checks, and ended up being chosen as the overall winner. John Warren's colleagues waxed ironic at first: "Where's the volume control?" and "Don't move too quickly, or I may have an epileptic fit," were amongst the comments he had to endure but, like Donald Hudd, who confessed to initial dislike but changed his mind, describing it as "a delight to wear", soon realised he was the subject of secret admiration. Alan Stewart found it "daring for me," but immediately saw its potential as "a Friday shirt," in the American style.
The secret of the shirt's acclaim by all testers, it must be said, related to Lewin's provision of three sleeve lengths, so that each wearer was fitted perfectly, and to the quality of fabric and superb construction - possibly due to having its own factory. Nick Raffin described it as "a young man's shirt, in tune with current City tastes and trends," conceding that although it wasn't "as versatile as the Hackett" it was "perhaps more stylish and less expensive."
Hackett, 137 Sloane Street, London SW1 (0171 730 3331); Ozwald Boateng, 9 Vigo Street, W1 (0171 734 6868). Mail-order enquiries: TM Lewin 0171 839 1664; Thomas Pink 0171 498 3882; Charles Tyrwhit 0171 386 9900.
Ties by Timothy Everest, 32 Elder Street, London E1 (0171 377 5770); briefcase, Tanners Leather Goods, Cabot Place East, Canary Wharf, London E14 (0171 513 0188).Reuse content