SHIRTING THE ISSUE Men are taking a colorful, relaxed look to the office


The reign of the great white shirt is coming to an end. After a decade dominated by starchy white power shirts, things are starting to get a little more informal.

The shirts of the '90s put the emphasis on comfort.

Collars are loosening up a bit, color is returning, and the blue chambray denim dress shirt (a kind of dressed-up denim look) is one of the hottest new styles around.

"It's not that white shirts are dead, it's just that you're starting to see more variety now," says Jim Thorne, divisional merchandise manager at Jos. A. Bank Clothiers.

The basic white or blue shirts in every man's wardrobe have been joined by a much greater number of stripes and tattersalls in unusual earth-tone shades that coordinate with the environmental colors now shading men's suits.

Since fashion is cyclical, it was inevitable that there would come a point when the white dress shirt and bold patterned tie look TC was overdone. "We were white-ed out," says Edward Steinberg, owner of J. S. Edward's men's store. "Men were ready for more color and more pattern.

"We'd had navy and gray suits for years, and everybody had their blue shirts and white shirts, and it was real safe and easy. But now that olive, brown and tans are coming into suits, dress shirts have to change," he says.

The move to roomier, easier suit construction over the past decade paved the way for changes in the cut of shirts.

"With a softer suit, the dress shirt has to keep up," says Edward Menicheschi, Arrow Co. spokesman.

"In the last year, we've lowered the collar band and used a softer fusing within to get an easier look instead of a stiff, starched look," he says.

"It's all part of the changes we've gone through in the last decade."

As men became more involved in fitness and other leisure pursuits, they spent more on sportswear and their wardrobes became more diversified.

Instead of just one pair of tennis shoes, men began accumulating specific shoes for different sports, even additional watches for work and play.

"At the same time, barriers were breaking down in the office," says Mr. Menicheschi. "Not long ago, only a white or solid blue shirt was acceptable. Now lots of fabrications are making their way into the office, such as the chambray that we introduced for spring of 1991."

It was about a year ago that the change from dressy white shirts to more relaxed shirts became noticeable on a broad scale, says Mr. Thorne.

"We started seeing a more casual approach to dress wear as sport coats become stronger and dressier suits started flattening out a bit.

"Most professional men will still wear a pinpoint shirt to work, but for businesses where a sport coat is appropriate, he might wear a chambray shirt. Or for Friday or Saturday night, a new look instead of a knit shirt and khakis, might be a chambray shirt and a funky tie.

While a chairman of the board or banker might not wear a chambray dress shirt to work, says Mr. Thorne, "he might wear a white dress shirt with a hint of plum in a stripe instead of wearing his real crisp white shirt with his navy blue double-breasted suit."

At the same time that the longer, more pointed collar is gaining popularity as a looser less uptight look, there's been a return to the tab collar.

"It's our No. 2 after button down," says Mr. Thorne. "It used to be considered very British and upright, but when you put it on a chambray shirt, it looks real new."

Watch for the easier, less formal look to continue into fall, says Tom Julian, spokesman for the Men's Fashion Association, an industry trade group. Men's sport coats will begin to take on a more relaxed, shirt-like construction, he says.


As the spring season begins, watch for:

* More stripes of every variety; the most avant-garde will combine several in one shirt.

* Earth tone stripes and checks in olives, tan and plums on white or ecru backgrounds.

* Shirts made with textured fabrics, such as chambray and oxford cloth.

* Looser collars with longer points looking newer than the spread collar.

* Dressy details on casual shirts, such as a tab collar on a chambray shirt.

* Casual details on dressy shirts, such a patch pocket on either side of the chest.

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