Spotlight: The Marcella Shirt

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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.

dalvey_ECU

The Marcella pattern – often referred to as birds-eye – resembles the dimples of a golf ball.

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.

1936 ad in Scottish newspaper.

1936 ad for a Scottish haberdasher offering a “soft-fronted Marcella Shirt, with turn-down collar attached.”

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).

United Kingdom

hunt_holditch_woodsofshropshire_2014

Hunt & Holditch, £42 at Woods of Shropshire.

billngsandedmonds_co_uk_2014Billings & Edmonds, £44.

TM_Lewin_2014_2TM Lewin, £44.50.  Available in regular or slim fit.  Takes four studs.

Moss_Bros_2014Moss Bros, £45.  Tailored fit.

simpson_ruxton_birtchnells_co_uk_2014Simpson and Ruxton, £49.50 at Birtchnell’s.  Available in regular or slim fit.

clermont_direct_2014Clermont Direct, £50.  Takes five studs.

harvieandhudson_2014Harvie & Hudson, £67.  Available in regular or slim fit.

oliverbrown_2014Oliver Brown, £75.

Dalvey_2014Dalvey, £75.  Slim fit, takes five studs.

roderick_charles_Nov_2010_CURoderick Charles, £89.

Thomas_Pink_2014

Thomas Pink, £$99.  Available in regular, slim or super slim fit.  Also available with covered  placket.

favourbrook_2014Favourbrook, £120.

Gieves_Hawkes_2014Gieves & Hawkes, £125.

Budd_2014_2Budd Shirtmakers, £165.  Takes three studs.

turnbullandasser_2014

Turnbull & Asser, US$395 online (approx £238).

United States

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_Mr_Porter_2014

Brooks Brothers “bib-front cotton tuxedo shirt” with piqué bib, collar and cuffs. $120 at Mr. Porter.

Brooks_Brothers_2014

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_2014

Kent Wang tuxedo shirt with “Marcella (piqué) front, collar and cuffs”, $145.  Takes three studs.

paulstuart_shirt_marcellaC

Paul Stuart “piqué formal shirt”, $228.  Reviewed in a separate post.

New Zealand

nicholas_jermyn_2014_slim

Nicholas Jermyn “Marcella Dinner Shirt”, NZ$159.  Available in regular or slim fit.

The Netherlands / International

Suitsupply_Online_Store_2014

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.

22 Comments

  1. John R

    TM Lewin has a good one, in slim and regular fit: http://www.tmlewin.com//on/demandware.store/Sites-tmlusd-Site/en_US/GeoShow-Product?pid=28652
    It lists at 72 pouunds, 56 if you buy 3 more shirts, and it’s sometimes on sale.

    Reply
  2. Hal

    TM Lewin is, of course, another British firm.

    John R’s link is to the US Lewin’s site with the price in dollars. In the UK they are currently offering it at £44-50 or £35 if you buy three of their shirts. I own one and can recommend them. They take four studs (so more than shirts traditionally do but fewer than simply replacing the normal button positions) but the bottom one will tend to be concealed by your waist covering.

    I prefer the Marcella shirt to the – more common – pleated shirt front.

    Reply
  3. John

    I’m sure there are many others, but I purchased mine from Charles Tyrwhitt. I’ve not had many to compare it to, but it seems to be a quality product with a nice thickness to the bib. They offer some fit and collar options as well – spread collar in 3 fits and wing collar as trim fit only.

    http://www.ctshirts.com/men's-shirts/men's-dress-shirts?q=usddefault|||||||3502,||||||||

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      Thanks for the info John. I’ve added their shirt to my list.

      Reply
  4. Belfagor

    I have the one by Clermont Direct. In sunlight it has an almost a blue tint to it, as if it were pretreated with liquid bluing or something. Looks great under artificial light, though. What I really like about it are the cuffs — they’re not cut as wide as typical double cuffs. My experience has been off-the-rack double cuffs tend to be very wide resulting in a looser fitting cuff that comes to rest lower on the hand, sometimes all the way to the first thumb knuckle (like most people, my arm isn’t a perfectly standard sleeve length so the extra fabric allows a loose cuff to slide down). These cuffs fit properly.

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      Yes, the length of French-cuffed sleeves can be a problem. I offer some solutions in this post.

      Reply
    2. rdenn

      I too have the Clermont shirt. I concur on the colour – it is quite white. However, after several starchings, the shirt acquires a softer tone, even after washing. It’s a quality shirt – good construction and thick fabric. I always enjoy wearing it with my vintage 30s 2×4 db.

      Reply
  5. Duncan Pike

    This was, perhaps, my favourite discovery from BTG. I’d never have known they existed, otherwise, and I think they are the sharpest version of Black Tie shirts. I also have the Clermont shirt, though I’ve never noticed the blue tint – I will have to look at it more carefully in natural light.

    Peter, you left out one American version. It took me about two and a half days to explain to the staff at Holt Renfrew what it was I wanted, and it never helps that the store is organized by brand, instead of by type of clothing. They finally found the Tom Ford version for me, at a mere $1500. I nearly laughed out loud.

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      Lol. Maybe I’ll pick up a couple on my way home from work.

      Reply
  6. wdwright77

    I like the idea of a Marcella shirt for Black Tie. As you say though, in the US it is hard to find. When I start working again and can afford to splurge on some new items for my tuxedo, I will look into getting one of the Paul Staurt models. I’d hate to think about what the true Marcella shirt would run me if I were to import it from Great Britain, even with no VAT added. It looks nicer with the black bow tie even without being surrounded by pleats. I do think however that $1500 for a dinner shirt is a bit over the top. But if that’s what you get in a ‘name’ shirt, then perhaps it is worth the hunt for the shirt as well as the bucks!

    Reply
  7. d4nimal
    1. Matt

      Yes, I got it. Its quality is similar to Clermont Direct, more fitted. Interesting thing – Clermont is really, really cold white, wonderful. Suitsupply is slightly more milky (though NOT ivory).

      Reply
    2. Peter Marshall

      Thank you for pointing this out – the company’s vague description of the shirt makes it virtually impossible to find through online searches. I have now added it to my post.

      Reply
  8. BW_UK

    For those in the US, the American version of the TM Lewin website, as linked in the first response, may help. $76 may not be cheap but its sure better than $1500…!
    For reference, the “slim fit” is not *very* slim; it is a slightly fitted body shape that will prevent excess shirt fabric billowing above a waist-covering and will help maintain the shape of the Marcella bosom. Note also that TM Lewin list a fairly comprehensive range of sleeve choices so it’s possible to get your optimum spec of collar size, body-shape and sleeve length.
    I chose one of these shirts because there is no central front pleat or placket and, when worn with studs, it evokes something of the look of a stiff-front formal shirt. I actually own two of them. My own dinner suit was a bespoke order but their single-button/peak lapel “Mayfair” Tuxedo looks like a good off-the-rack option. As far as I can see, it has very traditional styling with no vent and flapless pockets.
    As well as studs, they also offer a range of other evening wear accessories:
    http://www.tmlewin.com/Formal-Wear-Accessories/Mens-evening-accessories,en_US,sc.html
    The single-sized (no adjusters!) self-tie bow ties, in a variety of silk finishes, look pretty good. Just ignore the multicoloured wedding and prom cummerbunds (!).

    Reply
  9. wdwright77

    I concur with the gent who reads the blog over a cup of coffee. I like reading pleasurable stuff with a good cup. After moving from one place to another, I had a chance to examine much off my formal wardrobe and while I can live with much of it as I’ll hopefully be starting back to work in a professional environment really soon, one thing is lacking: at least two Marcella shirts as well as a good fly-front shirt-all with French Cuffs of course-and hopefully that will soon come to pass. Seems I should have made notice of this need and had them about a year ago, but everything has been on hold since I lost my job. But as I Said, hoping we’re back to work very soon and then I can start getting more of my formal wardrobe together. It will make some folks heads turn in a good way. Meanwhile, I’ll keep reading the blog for more great ideas for sure.

    Reply
  10. mnm1077

    I am having a marcella shirt made, and the tailor insists that only the bib and cuffs should be marcella. He thinks that for a classic marcella shirt the collar should be plain, and a marcella collar is just showy. Every other bit of advice he has given me has been very traditional. Is he right that a plain-collar marcella shirt is the classic version?

    Reply
    1. wdwright77

      If you look at the posting of the blog entry again, I think your will see that the collar of that shirt is also marcella. I think that you’d be safe in having your shirt done in marcella a lll the way, and it’ll be even better if it’s awing collar style shirt because everything from the bow tie and the vest will be the same fabricant it’ll look very sharp when worn with a tailcoat, or even a regular tuxedo. If I was having it done, I would have French Cuffs as well as stud holes for sure.

      Reply
      1. mnm1077

        Yes, based on this blog it appears that marcella collar, bib, and cuffs is the classic combination — and that is exactly the issue. This tailor is insisting that marcella bib-only is the classic, and that having a marcella collar is just showy.or glitzy.

        If it weren’t for the fact that everything else he has said, as well as all the details he has noticed and suggested, has lined up so well with what I have read here and in other sources, I would not take this particular piece of advice very seriously, but given his track record I am wondering whether there is a basis for the view that having a plain collar is actually the baseline I should be working from.

        It’s a turndown collar, with french cuffs and studs. Meant to be worn with a tuxedo.

        Reply
        1. wdwright77

          You know what I would do? Print out the Blog entry and take it to your tailor. If he sees it can actually be done, it might spur him on to your direction. After all, you will be more pleased with the shirts (I’d have two done) if they come out to your liking rather than just come out with only part of what you want. I’m hoping that maybe next year will find me able to have two crafted the same way.

          Reply
    2. Peter Marshall

      Most of the historical references I have to Marcella shirts refer only to the bib and make no specific mention of the cuffs and collar material so it’s impossible to know if the latter two matched the bib. However, the few references that do specifically mention cuffs and collar material refer to it as Marcella. This is particularly true in British references. Perhaps it was not as common in the U.S. (which is where I assume you’re writing from).

      Furthermore, two very reputable experts in classic menswear (Flusser and Antongiavanni) specifically state that the collar and cuffs are made of Marcella.

      Reply
  11. mnm1077

    Thank you, that is helpful.

    As a followup — I have a mini-review of Suit Supply and TM Lewin marcella shirts:

    I tried both and I thought both were excellent. Both had nice high collars, and felt and looked richly textured in the bib, collar, and cuffs, and seemed (to my untutored eye) to be well made.

    The Suit Supply was a little odd in that the bib and the studs went all the way down to the waist, but I gather that a lot of guys don’t want to wear waist coverings, so this avoids the weird look of the bib looking like a bib because of the gap between the bib and the top of the pants.

    The non-marcella portion of the TM Lewin shirt was made of very thin cloth, which is great if you are very proper and never take your jacket off, but if you’re taking off your jacket because you are dancing and sweaty, I imagine your sleeves would be nearly transparent.

    Because at just the time those two shirts arrived I got an offer I couldn’t refuse on a bespoke marcella shirt, I returned them, but I would have been happy keeping either.

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

      Reply

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