My recent article on the Sartorial Love/Hate of rolled up jacket sleeves caused some decent debate about the practice. It also inspired some thought on rolled up shirt sleeves to which I pinned my colours of allegiance, at the expense of short sleeved shirts. A friend of mine noted this and asked, rather touchingly, what I had against the poor old short sleeve. I assured him it is neither the sleeve, nor even the shirt that I object to but the way it is conceived and the style in which it is worn.
For example, I have no equivalent objection to t-shirts or polo shirts; in the right context they are not only acceptable but also attractive. The display of bicep, elbow and forearm does not repulse me. In a sporting or casual context, the casual shirt does not cause offence. It is when the short sleeve appears in the office that it does cause offence; a weak, thin cotton thing with a pocket stuffed with pens, large airy arms and a stiff but rather characterless collar. Usually worn with unpressed Farah trousers by a portly IT technician who couldn’t care less about the brown sauce stains on his crotch or the dandruff in his hair: however positively you might think of the short sleeve shirt, it has these connotations.
The trouble with this design is that it hasn’t been thought through. It is simply a long sleeved shirt with chopped sleeves. As such, even a slim fitting version creates a bizarre effect; the torso is tight and yet the sleeves flap around like Texan flags. As such, the ‘business’ short sleeved shirt is not to be encouraged. But what of other contexts for the style? What of casual wear, summer parties, dinners on the terrace, cocktails in the Caribbean?
My research turned to that odd chrome-edged style decade, the 1950s. Marooned between the starched collars and wool of the 30s and 40s and the psychedelic colours and nylon of the 60s and 70s, the middle decade has sometimes been thought of as little more than a stop gap between the old order and the new. Personally, I have always thought of the 1950s as one of the most glamourous of decades, despite the Korean conflict and the continued economic hangover from the Second World War.
It had Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Marcello Mastroianni, Ella Fitzgerald and Jackson Pollock. It was Hitchcock movies, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe and the renaissance of Sinatra’s career. It had more tasteful and lasting lustre than the last two decades of the century combined and it was an era in which America’s loudly trumpeted values, art and culture found applaud and approval overseas.
It was also the decade of the American bowling alley, a rather less glamourous but equally important factor in the make-up of the era. And along with the boom of bowling came the unavoidable popularity of the bowling shirt; a brightly coloured short-sleeved shirt that offered sufficient room for the manoeuvres of the sport. The proportions of the shirt were not only practical, but attractive; retailers cottoned on to the trend and soon the bowling-inspired shirt was everywhere. The collar was flat, to the body of the shirt, unlike modern short sleeved shirts which attempt to replicate the structure of a shirt designed to be worn with neckwear. It was intentionally, rather than accidentally, casual.
The only issue with this shirt is that it tends not to suit the trouser styles of today. Partnered with some pleated golfing shorts or smart slacks (worn on the waist rather than the hips) it is both relaxed and chic; with sloppy denim and cargo shorts, it looks completely wrong. This is perhaps why modern variations on the bowling shirt, the craze of the 1950s, tend to be worn by those of older years. At all costs, avoid the putrid Rockabilly versions.