The only silk shirts of which I was aware as a young man were the gaudy printed ones produced by the Italian designer brands, but over the last year I have found reasons to dig a little deeper. The first was a mention of a silk-shirt wearing character (Sir Nicholas Pratt) in Edward St Aubyn’s novel Never Mind. It was news to me that men from Britain’s upper classes had been wearing silk shirts in the Sixties. Then I read that the heroic British mountaineer George Mallory climbed Everest in silk shirts. And finally I laid my hands on a series of articles about dandies, which were published by Country Life magazine twenty years ago. In one of these there’s a contemporaneous style profile of the 11th Duke of Devonshire, which includes a shot of at least twenty monogrammed cream-coloured silk shirts made for him by Turnbull & Asser. Yet two decades later silk shirts (aside from the aforementioned printed ones) seem almost extinct.
Where did it all go wrong for silk shirts? The problem, according to Andrew Penrose, a sales assistant at Turnbull & Asser, is that, “Central heating has rendered them obsolete because silk is warmer to wear than cotton." His company only offers rather ungentlemanly satin silks on a bespoke basis. Meanwhile Frank Foster, shirt maker to some of the best dressed men of all time, still makes some silk shirts, but blames their decline in the quality of the fabric, and the complications of laundering it, for silk’s unpopularity. Asked for tips on how to launder silk shirts he memorably said, “Don’t give them to your wife, give them to a proper laundry. No wives are any good at laundering, especially rich people’s wives. I tell my clients to marry peasants.” He also talked of the difficulties involved in making silk shirts, which may well be equally important, if less readily discussed.
Robert Whittaker, the shirt maker at Savile Row tailors Dege & Skinner told me, “We do indeed make them. I’ve just made two evening shirts from cream spun silk.” However, he admitted that silk is now mainly used for evening shirts, “The problem is that you can’t get stripes or designs that are suitable for a man’s shirt, because cream spun silk can’t be dyed any other colour.” The truth of this last remark was born out by a trip to see Stephen Lachter, another West End shirt maker. He showed me a swatch of spun silk shirtings offered by Bennett Silks, of which only the cream was convincing. Lachter fondly remember the old days: “I had customers who’d order a dozen cream silk shirts a year, they’d wear nothing else.”
To complete a review of the London shirt makers it’s worth pointing out that Emma Willis offers both plain spun silk and four different colours of striped oxford silk (which come from Switzerland), Budd offers a few solid colours. Sean O’Flynn also offers cream spun silk, and he made the shirt in the photographs. Men keen to inject some ducal style into their wardrobe should move quickly, before the silk shirt disappears entirely.