The Men's Shirt: Tracking A Sartorial Revolution In British Style Tribes

by Hetty Mahlich on 9 April 2021

The classic Ben Sherman shirt was a staple garment for British youth culture in the 20th century. Hetty Mahlich tracks the metamorphosis of the wardrobe staple.

The classic Ben Sherman shirt was a staple garment for British youth culture in the 20th century. Hetty Mahlich tracks the metamorphosis of the wardrobe staple.

Style is language. Fashion items are the words we choose to communicate ourselves with, to relate to our surroundings and fellow human beings. Whether fashion is your thing or not, it's a tired but nevertheless true fact, that everyone thinks about what they put on in the morning. The history of British style post WW2 finds its roots in youth culture, during a period when style became a primary tool of self-expression and allegiance for the post-war subcultures, beginning with the teddy boys and girls, and the mods in the 1960s. When one tracks the lineage of style tribes, from the punks of the 1970s, to the football casuals of the 1980s and the Britpop lads of the 1990s, one item remains the same in their metamorphosing uniforms - the button up shirt. Specifically, the Ben Sherman shirt.

Launching their It’s A Ben Sherman campaign last week, the British brand restated their claim to the men’s shirt as a staple in British modernism and style culture. Although the Ben Sherman fella can now rely on the brand for his wardrobe in its entirety, it remains to be the humble shirt that Ben Sherman is most renowned for. You see, before the sixties, shirts weren't worn casually. They were seen as office attire, or to be worn more formally as part of a suit, created by brilliant tailors such as Frank Foster. Then came Ben Sherman, who launched their button up shirt in 1963.

The brand's namesake, (born Arthur Benjamin Sugarman), founded the label after he spent a brief time living in the US, where he came across the button down Ivy League shirts produced by the likes of the Brooks Brothers. The button down feature was initially introduced to stop polo players’ collars sticking upwards. Later moving back to Brighton in the UK, Sherman decided to launch his own shirt-making business. After a brief period of producing for other companies, Sherman soon turned his hand to designing originals. The Ben Sherman shirt of 1963 was also a button down, but with an added box pleat and a hook and button on the back of the collar. The two-piece collar measured exactly three fingers in width. Individually boxed, a novelty at the time, the shirts were made from Oxford cotton imported from the US. ‘The quality was very, very important’, Daphne Sherman, Ben Sherman’s widow, told The Guardian. Their bright, pastel colours and patterns including candy-coloured stripes were seen as most unusual. The new It’s A Ben Sherman campaign focuses on the Oxford check, the madras check and the stripes, alongside other heritage prints.

Portrait of ‘Skully’, 2010, by Dean Chalkley, from the Young Souls project (© Dean Chalkley, 2011), courtesy Ben Sherman
Our brand philosophy has always been about being a quintessential British global shirt leader, relevant in every decade of youth culture since the 1960s - Mark Williams, Ben Sherman creative director

During this period, the post-war working class youth had an increased spending power. The fashion market was flourishing, and brands worked hard to target and appeal to youth, as Jon Savage highlights of American adolescents in his seminal text Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945 (City: Pimlico, 2008) [1]. The Ben Sherman shirt became one key piece in the puzzle of the uniforms donned by the youth tribes who defined modern British style in the latter half of the 20th century, playing one vital part in a wider language of clothing. The seminal role dress played in forming the identities of youth tribes, is illustrated by the British sociologist Dick Hebdige in his 1979 text Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979). ‘The punks wore clothes which were the sartorial equivalent of swear words, and they swore as they dressed- with calculated effect…’[2]. The shirt played a key role in youth rebelling against the generation which came before them by reappropriating their wardrobes. 'Quietly disrupting the orderly sequence which leads from signifier to signified, the mods undermined the conventional meaning of "collar, suit and tie", pushing neatness to the point of absurdity’ [3].

Hebdige’s text is predicated on the idea of viewing subcultural style through the lens of semiotics, also known as sign theory, whereby an object, in this case an item of clothing, communicates or 'signifies' a meaning. In other words, different fashion items make up a uniform to constitute an overall message, which the wearer might use to define themselves as an individual in relation to their local community. These items can be customised, re-contextualised and worn by different people in different ways, each time communicating something different, or notifying the viewer of a different allegiance.

The Ben Sherman shirt would come to be used to varying effects, often letting the wearer's allegiance to different music or leisure areas be known. They would frequently emulate the dress of their musical icons, from Paul Weller in The Jam in the seventies, to British Ska and the likes of The Specials in the eighties, or Britpop and Oasis in the nineties. First worn by the band The Who, and the closely affiliated youth subculture the mods, the humble shirt began to take on new meaning from the late 1960s. ‘They [the mods] were fastidiously neat and tidy', even in comparison to the Teddy Boys who came before them, Hebdige explains [4]. The action of buttoning up a shirt connotes a certain act of self respect and self-care, and a respect for the garment in question. Notably, a series of Ben Sherman films back in 2014 explored their button up shirt and its direct ties to the notions of preparation, ritual and respect.

Each subculture that followed the mods, chose to wear their own button down shirts in varying ways. Allegiance to the Northern Soul movement, which was in part born out of the mod scene from the South, was made by donning a shirt under a knit vest paired with flared trousers, to take to the dance floor lit up by American soul music. The seventies brought with it their defiant successors, who dressed as 'A kind of caricature of the model worker, cropped hair, braces, short, wide Levi jeans or functional sta-rest trousers, plain or striped button-down Ben Sherman shirts and highly polished Doctor Marten boots' [5]. Ben Sherman shirts also played a central role in the birth of lad culture which was closely aligned to the terrace-wear of the 1980s football casuals, paired with Stone Island parka jackets and adidas Sambas.

Later came the Britpop of the nineties, which found its poster boys in Oasis and Blur. Partakers in the style were emulating most of the subcultures who had come before them, but taking it mainstream. The Oasis look grew out of the Northern casuals, nodding to the mods with their button down shirts now paired with bucket hats, Levi's 504s and adidas Gazelles. From the South, you had the other side to the coin. Here they swapped aspirational sportswear for a punk-influenced toughness, think Doc Martens and Harrington jackets.

Oasis are one of the bands who came to represent Britpop in the 1990s, alongside other mod influenced bands such as Blur.
Courtesy Ben Sherman

2021 is the perfect time for the Ben Sherman brand to restate their mandate. Fashion consumers today want authenticity; many designers throughout the A/W 21 season betted on a return to their brand DNA attracting post-lockdown shoppers, whilst as Black Lives Matter and the fastening climate emergency have seen a greater focus placed on brand values and transparency. Heritage and authenticity are part and parcel, and with Ben Sherman finding its roots in Britishness, they have the renewed potential for mass appeal - despite the contradictions this has with their subcultural, anti-establishment roots. As Hebdige writes, ‘The members of a subculture must share a common language. And if a style is really to catch on, if it is to become genuinely popular, it must say the right things in the right way at the right time. It must anticipate or encapsulate a mood, a moment'[5].

Over time, although its wearer may have changed, the original ideological connotations of the Ben Sherman shirt remain. Youth and subcultural style is an oxymoron, it's at once ephemeral and wearable. Reminding us of their iconic design, Ben Sherman takes us back to all the shirt has stood for before, and what it might stand for now.

We spoke to Ben Sherman's creative director Mark Williams, to find out what the brand really means for British culture today.

The Specials, photograph Paul Williams

HM: Do you remember your first Ben Sherman shirt? If so, what was it and how would you describe your style at that point in time?

MW: Yes, my first Benny was a red check Oxford. I loved it! I think I wore it till it literally fell apart. The look was with skinny black jeans & Doc Martens - very iconic.

HM: What's the Ben Sherman brand philosophy today?

Mark Williams: Our brand philosophy has always been about being a quintessential British global shirt leader, relevant in every decade of youth culture since the 1960s. Today we embrace individuality and diversity in the same way Ben Sherman himself embraced the original mod movement. 

HM: How has this changed or stayed the same since 1963?

MW: In 1963 Ben Sherman was an innovator in shirts. Today we have grown the collection to appeal to more diverse lifestyle consumers who can experience the entire Ben Sherman modern world. 

HM: What about it appeals to you?

MW: The ability to combine our famous heritage with a contemporary way of dressing is what I find most appealing. Shirting will always be our focus; today, it's about how you wear your Ben Sherman. I love to see new generations wearing our shirts in their own way. I find that incredibly inspiring. 

HM: What's your design process when it comes to the classic Ben Sherman shirt?

MW: We research what has worked well in previous seasons, and we have a defined look and feel to the brand, so newness often comes through modern fabric innovation. My process is to try and stay true to the original design features while combining innovative fabrications and patterns relevant for a modern consumer. 

HM: How do you approach updating a garment with such a strong legacy, for the future?

MW: Everything starts with the fabric. We weave in the brand DNA during our design process; it's important to have a good balance, the trends but not be led by them for a brand with such a clear look. We can drift occasionally, but you always need to come back to your foundation and what the brand is famous for. 

It's A Ben Sherman


  1. J.Savage, ‘The Arrival of the Teenager: The Launch of Seventeen’, Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945 (City: Pimlico, 2008), pp.441-453.
  2. D.Hebdige, ‘Style as homology’, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979), p114.
  3. D.Hebdige, ‘Home-grown cool: The Style of the Mods’, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979), p52.
  4. D.Hebdige, ‘Home-grown cool: The Style of the Mods’, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979), p52.
  5. P.Cohen, ‘White Skin, Black Masks’, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979), p55.
  6. D.Hebdige, ‘Style as signifying practice’, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979), p222.


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