The Marcella shirt is a uniquely British compromise between the formality of the traditional full-dress shirt and the comfort of the American black-tie shirt.
The term evolves from Marseilles in reference to that city’s production of quilts with distinctive raised patterns beginning in the early 18th century. In the latter part of the century, Lancashire textile mills utilized mechanical means to recreate the look as a double-faced, quilted cotton cloth and the name was modified to Marcella (usually, but not always, capitalized). In the 19th century, the fabric was used almost exclusively for formal shirt fronts as its thickness made it naturally stiffer than plain cloth and particularly rigid when saturated with starch.
Piqué was also utilized for formal shirt fronts at this time, for similar reasons. Although the term is used interchangeably with Marcella today, piqué is in fact differentiated by its construction and its range of geometric patterns. Thus, vintage sartorial references distinguished between the two weaves up until the late 20th century when they became synonymous.
The use of Marcella and piqué fronts for full-dress shirts began as a novel alternative to plain-fronts but by the early 1910s Sartorial Arts Journal was reporting that “the plain version has practically been replaced” by the piqué front. (The growing vogue for full-dress bow ties and cuffs to match one’s shirt bosom in the teens and ‘20s meant that Marcella and piqué fabric also began to be used for those items.)
As the dinner suit came into its own in the 1910s and 1920s, men began to replace the traditional full-dress accessories with versions more suitable to the informal jacket. Early attempts to modify the formal shirt by simply omitting the starch met with limited appeal. Bolder American men experimented with pleated fronts in addition to the more conventional Marcella and plain styles, and even imported turndown collars from ordinary day wear. London shirtmakers of the 1930s, meanwhile, created a variant of the Marcella-front shirt by using the same material for the collar and cuffs. The trend was especially popular in turndown-collar models as these collars were typically attached to the shirt, whereas wing collars had to be purchased separately.
The resulting Marcella shirts have remained a popular option in Britain to this day but never caught on in America as is evident in the following survey of models currently available on the Web. Over time, wing-collar versions with attached collars and French cuffs also appeared but I have excluded these from the survey as they are not proper for white tie (due to the double cuffs) and often not appealing with black bow ties (due to the wing collar).
Hunt & Holditch, £42 at Woods of Shropshire.
Thomas Pink, £$99. Available in regular, slim or super slim fit. Also available with covered placket.
Turnbull & Asser, US$395 online (approx £238).
While there are some American retailers that offer formal shirts with piqué fronts, collars, and cuffs, they do not use the term Marcella and it is quite possible that the fabric may not be as thick as proper Marcella. This is definitely the case for shirts made entirely out of a piqué weave (excluded from this survey) because it would simply not be feasible to do so with a fabric as thick as Marcella.
Brooks Brothers “bib-front cotton tuxedo shirt” with piqué bib, collar and cuffs. Takes four studs. $120 at Mr. Porter.
Postscript: I purchased this shirt and it the decoration is not piqué as described. Instead, as the close-up image on the Mr Poter site shows, it is a tone-on-tone diamond pattern created with shiny thread sewn into the fabric.
Brooks Brothers pseudo Marcella shirt: the “bib-front spread collar formal tuxedo shirt” has a piqué bib and collar (but not cuffs), although this is not indicated in the product description. $135. Available in slim and regular fit.
Kent Wang tuxedo shirt with “Marcella (piqué) front, collar and cuffs”, $145. Takes three studs.
Paul Stuart “piqué formal shirt”, $228. Reviewed in a separate post.
Nicholas Jermyn “Marcella Dinner Shirt”, NZ$159. Available in regular or slim fit.
The Netherlands / International
Netherlands-based Suit Supply’s “shirt white” has a piqué collar, bib and cuffs that are not mentioned in the product description. It is available online for US$99 / £79 / €79 as well as in their store locations around the world. Option of slim or regular fit.