Loud and proud: Statement shirts

John Walsh explains his love for loud shirts

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In the ultimate street-buddy movie, Midnight Cowboy, when tubercular conman "Ratso" Rizzo meets dumb Texan hustler Joe Buck in a New York bar, there's only one topic of conversation that can break the ice and establish their levels of need and self- esteem. "Excuse me," says Ratso, "I'm just admiring that colossal shirt... That is one hell of a shirt. I bet you paid a pretty price for it, am I right?" "Oh it ain't cheap," says Joe. "I mean, yeah, I'd say this was an all-right shirt. Don't like to, uh, you know, have a lot of cheap stuff on my back."

Well, quite. Or ordinary stuff, or dull stuff, or colourless or neutral or mass-produced or boring stuff on your back. Wearers of loud, indeed "colossal" shirts are often waging a silent war against the deadly mundanity of male fashion. They have walked into Reiss or Topman or T M Lewin and surveyed the racks of grey and charcoal and stone and taupe and pale blue and pale pink once too often, and are desperate for a little colour, a little jumping in the blood. Joe Buck's garment was actually a rather horrible peach-coloured cowboy shirt, but it had native-American fringes on the sleeves and made him stand out from the crowd. And that, of course, is the point.

Men's daywear used to be a matter of basic semiotics. You wore a suit, in charcoal grey or navy blue, to look like everyone else. "Trust me," the suit said to other men in suits, "I'm no threat. I'll fit in." You wore a white or pale shirt like everyone else, but you could sport a racily patterned tie, to show you had some personality. When ties dropped out of fashion, shirts had to bear the burden of expressing their owner's wild side, but they rarely offered much beyond non-matching collars. Things improved in the last decade, shirts were suddenly available in darker single colours and vivid pastels – teal, puce, lilac – and the 40-something gentleman's wardrobe became a spectrum of discreet, well-mannered, decorous homogeneity. "I just want to be like everyone else," these shirts said, "I don't want to seem assertive."

Well, sod that for a game of (uniformed) soldiers. Ever since I was shunned by my aghast fellow scholars at a Parish Hall disco in Wimbledon in 1968, for removing my jumper to reveal a shirt that shimmered in gold Lurex until I resembled an Acapulco crooner, I've been an avid buyer of loud shirts.

No other loud garments – no tartan trews or fringed jackets – but vividly coloured, crazily patterned shirts became a necessity. They were a statement of ego, a pure-cotton calling card, a coloured pamphlet that drew the eyes of everyone you met and forced them to linger on your spindly torso as if it was something heroic. Of course you risked looking a prat if the shirt was too emphatically noisy; but over the years you learned to use their loudness as an expression of your personality rather than a flashy accessory. They were never actually called "loud shirts" until the rise of Mambo in the mid-1990s. Mambo (which apparently stands for "Means of Acquiring Models, Bucks and Opiates") was started in Australia in 1984 as a "surf and streetware" company by a chap called Dare Jennings. He began with silk-screened surfer T-shirts, then moved on to "loud shirts" in 1994: they featured Robert Crumb-style pictures of animals, dogs and ostriches as well as "tiki" (Polynesian god) motifs.

When Jennings sold the company four years ago, the new owners discontinued the loudies. "Although the loud shirt line has had a great run," they said, "nowadays it's seen as being worn only by middle-aged guys at barbecues."

This was an outrageous slur, but it's true that loud shirts don't suit every person or every occasion. They're hard for a 20-stone man to wear without resembling a children's entertainer or a novelty marquee. You cannot wear one while negotiating a bank loan, nor while demanding a pay rise on grounds of poverty. To wear one on a first date is to risk being thought a tad megalomaniacal. But several men's shops now stock loud shirts that aren't Hawaiian or vulgar, and are fitted, rather than expected to fit round a straining belly. Desigual, the Barcelona clothing brand which this year began collaborating with Christian Lacroix, is the leader in the field. Check out its typical patchwork look in the Gallineta style – it has, in effect, spliced the designs of three shirts together so that, although the patterns don't match, the colours rock along together. My favourite Desigual shirt, the Hacha, combines the sleeves of a Newmarket jockey, the brown-pink-and-peach of a hippie blanket and the swirly dandelion pattern of a psychedelic light show. Not bad for £79. Worn with a black jacket or simple jeans, it will turn heads, attract women and make people say: "What... exactly... are you wearing?"

Ted Baker, the high-street chain, has been dabbling in loud designs for a while – they're more expensive (£120) and involve more coherent patterns, but they're "statement" shirts nonetheless. In its formal Pashion range, the Loather, Abeesh and Anvil shirts offer handsome grey floral prints with double cuffs and mother-of-pearl buttons.

Etro, the Italian fabric designers, used to offer stunningly colourful patterns on material that was too fine to be hard-wearing (its shirts regularly split down the back after being worn for six months – I used to give the remnants to my daughter to machine-sew into patchwork blouses). Etro is surprisingly restrained these days, but offers both a flowery style and a hint of khaki in its military rose print shirt. At £187, it seems more expensive than it need be.

For the same outlay, you could indulge in the glorious extravaganza of colour and slightly mad attention to detail that characterises Robert Graham, the California firm co-founded by Robert Stock, who once co-designed the Chaps fancy-jeans label with Ralph Lauren. He started the business that half-bears his name (the shadowy "Graham" departed some time ago) in 2001 and sells shirts to 1,000 stores in 12 countries. It has standalone shops only in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

The owners are clearly appealing to a new, Sixties-retro market of fashion magpies attracted by the brightest colours and most extravagant details. When I visited the LA store this summer, I bought the Milan Sport (main picture) an ice-blue cotton-and-silk shirt whose orange paisley swirls on the pleated front are accented with silk embroidery and whose button-seam is a descending pattern of red, yellow and green chevrons. It's a whole anthology of special effects – such as the surprise disclosure of a prismatic counter-pattern inside the cuff, which make impressionable strangers swoon.

Slaves to fashion labels will be interested to find that the Alexander McQueen studio includes a loud map printed shirt in its present range in which falling cherubs and an engineered print compete for the viewer's attention. It's beautiful, but so it should be at £645. And it proves that the loud shirt, once thought an abomination worn only by barbecue bores and fat Hollywood producers, has found itself a legitimate rail in the modern gentleman's wardrobe at last.