Our Little Friend

The Camp Collar Shirt

Content creator Chris Quyen discusses his life, influences, and the essential secrets of his craft in the first series of the Essentialist series.

“The World is Yours!” — Tony Montana

If there’s one thing that defines Brian De Palma’s villain Tony Montana it’s his implacable optimism. A Cuban immigrant carving a bloody path through 1980s Miami, first as a dishwasher and then as a drug lord, Montana is the dark side of the American dream. And what drives him is hope: hope for bigger, better things and that whatever he lacks can be provided (or taken by force). It is hope that drives him until it fails him.

In an age of economic uncertainty, national mental health crises, and endless seasons of Love Island, I think we could all use a bit of Tony’s optimism.

Thank God then for camp collar shirts.

Known by many names (including the Capri, Pyjama, or Cuban shirt), the camp collar shirt is a casual icon that has its origins in the 1950s. First worn by Cuban farmers to overcome the heat, the shirt became popular after it was exported to the United States during the Cuban Exile of 1959.

Like the desperate immigrants who landed on the shores of Miami, the camp collar shirt carries an air of the exotic. Unlike a traditional business shirt, a camp collar doesn’t have a separate collar band, being instead attached via two pieces of fabric (the collar topside and another for the bottom) to the shirt body, allowing it to splay open casually and sit flat against the chest. The lack of a top button also precludes it from ever being worn with a tie (to the consternation of forlorn office-workers everywhere).

Unsurprisingly, fashion-forward men of the 50s flocked to it. Leaving the traumas of the Second World War behind them, they embraced the shirt as a symbol of the social and economic freedoms of a new America. The shirt’s short-sleeves and boxy cut were a far-cry from military uniforms of the preceding decade; and being made of lightweight silk or rayon the shirt offered a touch of modern luxury.

The most significant contributor to the shirt’s popularity however was its rare ability to combine style and comfort. Its easy lines, open collar, and loose-fitting cut added a refreshing contrast to the classic male wardrobe, while its relaxed silhouette evoked the thoughtful effortlessness of men like Elvis Presley, Gary Cooper and Martin Luther King, who enthusiastically adopted it.

These days, there are as many different camp collar shirts as they are remixes of Old Town Road, but the ones that overcome the cynicism of the market are imbued with something special. M.J. Bale’s Preston summer shirt is just one example . Made of a lightweight linen-cotton blend with a vintage deck stripe, the shirt pays tribute to the utilitarian original, whilst also featuring reinforced double cuffed sleeves and a box hem.

In the greater cultural unconscious then, what the shirt's revival seems to indicate is a longing for a certain optimism, a dream of a better tomorrow gone astray in the intervening decades since the shirt's debut.

When warmer weather brings-to-mind visions of a thinning ozone layer, instead of foreign escapades, it’s difficult to repel the idea that the world might be coming to an end. And so, if we are to retreat as a species, then at least we can do so with the knowledge that whatever the future throws at us we’ll be able to take the heat head on.

Dear End of the World, say hello to our little friend.