Shirt shrift

Sacrilege though it seems to say, wearing a shirt every day — it can get a bit much, sometimes, can’t it? One, two, three, four, five, six, and seven, then eight and nine (the cuffs) … up those buttons must all be done every morning, bottom to top or top to bottom. Then nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one, all undone at close of day. What a slog.

Let’s hear it, then, for the mid-layer. Okay, true, we’re halfway into the twenty-first year of the twenty-first century, yet still no one is wholly confident in defining mid-layers — like, what are the qualifying criteria for being one. But, see, with mid-layers, you know one when you see one. They’re not shirts, not jackets, they’re not knitted, and usually they could serve under this or over that depending on the time of year — and the workshop this spring has welcomed four similar but quite distinct examples of these cut-sewn curios.

Three of them return from earlier years. The smock is one. It is the most simple-looking of this not-shirt group — but “smocks”, they say, “can be deceiving”, and the smock is a decidedly more engineered piece of clothing this time around, distinctive most from the other mid-layers by what the eye at first doesn’t see, which is its sweeping great side-body gussets, running untrammelled all the way from the bottom of the body to the end of the sleeve. In offsetting stress placed on the side seams and around the under-arm, these panels make the smock a very strong garment (not to be underestimated in an item repeatedly tugged back and forth over a head). They also present an irresistible open-goal for comfortable sideways pockets for the resting of arms: pockets which in the case of the smock join in the middle, thereby really being pocket singular rather than pockets plural.

The sleep shirt at a squint looks like the smock, but couldn’t be more distinct in its construction. It too has an engineered quality about it, but for the sleep shirt, it is engineering of the precise pitching of very few pieces, and the necessary harmony between them. It has a dolman sleeve, with the sleeves not only cut as a single piece, but continuing up over the shoulder and coming together to form the top part of the body. That, as you might imagine, is a big piece of cloth — and a big piece of cloth with a lot of work to do. It must navigate not only the fussy shape of the human arm, but also the higgledy-piggleydness of shoulder and upper back. And with the sleep shirt being so simple a design, at least on its face, there is nowhere to hide should the shape or angle of this piece of cloth be slightly squiffy. It would drag, it would pull, bunch, it wouldn’t feel nice. The left and right of these sleeve-shoulder-back panels join at the front for a single-button neck opening, which like the smock give the sleep shirt a look of stark simplicity.

The popover is less stark. It is far from cluttered, either, but especially with its softly pressed open collar, its neatly bound gauntlets, and its delicate elbow darts, it is a warmer type of design, more tailored than utilitarian. It has been round the block before, and the version this year — in linen oxford from Northern Ireland — sees it buffed to a high shine.

And shirt-rejectors rejoice! There’s a new mid-layers in town this year. It shares with all the above a hoik-over-head approach to wearing, but in a triumph of non-overlapping design elements, not a lot else besides. It is the scrub shirt, and most striking about it are its not-long sleeves, its curvaceous v-ish neck, and its two neat pockets at the front — one of which has a raised bellows gusset, fighting back the shadow cast by the front pleat. It is called the scrub shirt because that, simply, is what it is; is what it most resembles; could be called a “utility top”, but that would be joyless. It risks goading suppliers to the medical industry, but it looks less like a standard-issue scrub top and more the surgical blues for one of the more well-meaning (but ultimately doomed) civilisations in Deep Space Nine.

If you have ever tried to shortcut the button-fastening stage of putting on a shirt (someone at the workshop did it once: it is memorable) you’ll start to understand that a mid-layer can’t simply and solely be “a shirt without the buttons”. Oh that it were! While they obviate the tedium of buttoning-up every morning and unbuttoning every night, the mid-layers here know that with great liberty comes great responsibility: responsibility to be nothing but a frictionless pleasure to slide up and over the head; responsibility not to make a terrible ripping sound when yanked back the other way too quickly. And so these mid-layers make up for the lack of front opening with serious, special accommodations: wider necks, lower armholes, seams precisely reinforced, splits or slits or vents up the sides, and pleats or gussets at the front or across the back. These mid-layer wares might suggest a laissez-faire attitude to dressing, but each one is a product of demands on design and development as strong, if not stronger, than for any other wearable at the workshop.