Style Crisis: The comfort of a classic cotton shirt

Newsletter blue cotton shirt

This was originally planned simply as a short sequel to my ‘Wide-legged cropped trousers’ post from the summer. In need of a top to go with the trousers in question I found myself floundering around for options. In desperation, I chose a cotton shirt for a laid-back look. Although there was nothing wrong with the shirt itself, it wasn’t the best choice for those trousers. Here’s a reminder of my shirt.

Bridge1 cotton shirt
Ah, those sunny evenings…

I really appreciated all the suggestions you made for alternative tops. I particularly liked the idea of a camisole – or at least the use of a more draping fabric. Why on earth I hadn’t thought of either, I wasn’t quite sure. Much food for thought and plans are afoot.

Loving my new cotton shirt

Meanwhile in the weeks since my post, that shirt has been worn repeatedly, garnering compliments even from non-sewers. The pattern is the ‘Archer’ Button Up Shirt from Grainline Studios.

Archer shirt pattern for cotton shirt

I’m well aware that it’s an established favourite in the sewing community – and I’m not pretending to break new ground here. However I was surprised by how much I enjoyed both the making and the wearing of my cotton shirt. I’m impressed by the confidence of the pattern draft – it has some nice touches. I have to confess that when I saw the size and sheer square-ness of the pockets I was a bit dubious and almost left them off. However especially on a print, the pockets blend into the background – leaving the horizontal line of the pocket tops to work as a design element that adds definition to an otherwise relaxed garment. The undercollar is cut on the bias which helps it sit and shape nicely. And if that isn’t enough – it fits. Not too tight across the upper back, a good length and sits well on my shoulders. Finally – the acid test – my version made it out of my wardrobe on a regular basis over the summer. Something was obviously working.

The comfort of a cotton shirt

I found myself asking why, given all the other options available, I opted for a cotton shirt to wear with my summer trousers. Why was it my go-to in the face of confusion – and why did I feel so comfortable in it?

True, after seasons of boho and structured bodycon, the shirt dress made a comeback a few years ago – as did the whole idea of the crisp cotton shirt. In recent seasons that sharper silhouette has been softened up a little with draping prints and flowing midi-length dresses – but the cotton shirt is still very much a ‘thing’ as evidenced in this recent Guardian article by Jess Cartner-Morley.

Guardian white cotton shirt

Simply being aware of this hasn’t helped with my style crisis. As explained in earlier posts, I’ve genuinely been at a bit of a loss as to what to wear in recent years. Knowing what styles are current at any moment in time doesn’t solve the problem. I just feel like a scientist facing a sea of data but missing the formula that might make sense of it all.

I felt a strong urge to move away from the ubiquitous hole-y jeans and fading striped t-shirts in my cupboard. How was I going to escape that world of scruffiness though, without feeling contrived or ‘dressed-up’?

Battling my ‘inner scruff’

Then just this week, I was having a conversation with a friend in which she observed that of her two tiny daughters, one always seemed to be clean and tidy, while the other invariably had a grubby face, lopsided clothes and a generally dishevelled air. Absolutely no judgement was intended – she was simply concerned that the younger, scruffy one, might feel overshadowed by her older sister who always seemed comparatively well-groomed – even at a very young age. I suddenly realised that even though I’m the eldest of two girls – I am absolutely that younger sister. I scrub up OK – but it always feels like ‘dressing up’ – and is subject to deterioration at a moment’s notice. Here I am at about eight years old in our music group at primary school.

Music group with cotton shirt

Now – feel free to take a moment to get over Miss Gordon’s amazing cat’s eye glasses, Mia Farrow fringe and mini-skirt-and-boots look. How cool was she? Once you’ve done that, cast your eye around for the one with scuffed shoes, dark green socks held up with elastic, a definite slouch and a shirt and tie.

Scruff despite cotton shirt

What you’ve got there is a loving mother’s losing battle against a natural scruff. The one who played a decent game of football in the playground, who had to wear green socks as they didn’t show the dirt so much – and who was the only girl in a school uniform even though we were a non-uniform school. I still don’t have the words to explain how much I hated that tie – but I can see where my mother was heading. If I’d worn woolly tights, they’d have had holes in their knees and the crotch would have been bagging around somewhere beneath my skirt hem. My uniform was modular – as an individual element was destroyed, it could be replaced without the loss of the whole shebang. Yet despite my hatred of that tie – I actually didn’t mind my shirt, once I’d sneakily popped the top button open.

My inner scruff is, apparently, never far from the surface. In 1976 my friends at secondary school went off to the hairdressers in search of a ‘Purdey’ cut.

Purdey haircut

My attempt at the emulating Joanna Lumley in The New Avengers simply resulted in the nickname ‘Kizzy’ for rest of the year, thanks to an appalling haircut and the inconvenient timing of the BBC adaptation of Rumer Godden’s book, ‘The Diddakoi’…

Kizzy book

A few years later I went off for a shaggy perm and the family name ‘Holly’ (as in ‘You don’t look like Kate Bush – more like a bloody holly bush’) has stuck with me ever since. Thanks, Dad…

The eighties suited me fine as I vacillated from big coats and wild hair to 50s frocks and diamante. And occasionally, all of them at once. I’ll spare you the pictures. It was all about extreme dressing up or extreme dressing down – no problem there. But in the decades since, I’ve often been at a bit of a loss.

Thinking back though, the simple cotton shirt has been a frequent stand-by. Deep down, I obviously recognise it as a way of de-scruffing myself without straying into uncertain territory. Realising that something might work for me – and feels right too – it’s a bit of a revelation.

My latest cotton shirt

With that analysis complete, I decide to test my theory by trying out another version of the Archer. This time with long sleeves and in a cotton lawn I’ve been itching to have a play with; our ‘Water meadow’ muted violet blue floral cotton lawn fabric.

Violet blue floral cotton lawn fabric

I occasionally struggle with prints – but I decide I can cope with this one since at a distance it looks more mottled than an obvious floral.

I’ve already cut the pattern from my previous version – and the instructions are admirably straight-forward. For what it’s worth, I’m impressed by the pattern drafting, the clarity of the instructions and the fit. The make is a familiar set of processes to me – but if you’ve not tried a shirt before then fear not – really! Grainline Studio have posted an excellent sewalong that really is a model of how to help the uninitiated.

I love some of the details like the sleeve placket

Placket for cotton shirt
Nothing like a well-pressed placket to start the day

and the afore-mentioned angled cuffs.

Cuffs for cotton shirt

If I could detail any aspect of the make that had me raising an eyebrow then I would but really – there wasn’t anything. This is a pattern that just goes together like a dream.

The result

This is my final version.

Final cotton shirt full length
No-scruff zone

And for completeness, here’s the back view.

Back view of cotton shirt

I’m desperately trying to step up my work clothes at the moment – so this is very much a work outfit. I’ve recently upgraded my usual (increasingly tatty) trainers to a pair of brogues, while the trousers are a simple pair of deliberately-oversized chinos. All good for comfort and practicality in my work routine. During any given day I might be diving around a mannequin, sitting at a computer or heaving around rolls of fabric – but sometimes I need to feel brushed-up enough to handle phone calls and supplier meetings with a vaguely professional air.

The verdict

Suffice to say that although I’ve taken out my contact lenses, found my specs, licked off my lippy and smudged my mascara, the shirt has stuck. I feel completely myself in it and since having my picture taken I’ve just cracked on with my day. Enough said.

What’s next?

Having established that this is a pattern that works for me, I’d really like to use it to expand my boundaries a bit. I’m thinking of a more draping version – or (daringly) a larger, more abstract print. Any other suggestions? Please, do let me know!

And while we’re at it, do any of you feel as if you’re constantly fending off an ‘inner scruff’? Am I justified in my belief that there are some people who really do step out effortlessly in white cardigans, neat hair and clean knees? If so – then really – how on earth do you do it?

18 thoughts on “Style Crisis: The comfort of a classic cotton shirt

  1. Penny Macdonald says:

    A good shirt is cool, classic and stylish as well as practical and comfy. Hmm, why don’t I have more of them? You look great in that outfit, keep that look!

  2. Miga says:

    Just a quick response I’m afraid. Lauren from LLadybird has made a few Archers- clearly loves the pattern. If you check out her blog, you’ll find what it looks like in a print and drapey fabric. Twofer!!! https://lladybird.com/tag/archer/ Don’t know if this was what you’re after. Have you looked at “that’snotmyage” ‘s blog? It might provide some ideas for pared down chic. Can’t remember if we’ve discussed her blog before, but a reminder anyway. Love the new “no-scruff” look.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      You know, Miga – I think it was you pointing that shirt out to me on Lladybird a while ago that brought it to my attention. Certainly you were the one who introduced me to Lladybird’s hilariously ‘cussy’ and spot-on observations. I will go back and check out the print and drape versions in her back catalogue – thank you! I do like thatsnotmyage – but I am a very sporadic visitor and as we start the new season I think a revisit is overdue… Relieved that my sprucing-up effort has passed ‘Miga Muster’!

  3. Rebecca Brewer says:

    I really enjoyed your post – as an older sister who is most comfortable in casual trousers or shorts, I totally get what you’re talking about. I have younger sister who I have seen gardening in what looked to me like a party frock. For me, it has to be 30 degrees in the shade for a dress to be my clothing of choice (thus I lived in dresses all summer.) I even remember the failed Purdey haircut, although looking at photos of Joanna Lumley now, I don’t think it even looked that great on her. I love a pullover woven top such as Style Arc Faith or McCall’s 7094, which I’ve made recently in a Liberty lawn and the ‘Ash Tree’ lawn, which I bought from you recently – very easy to wear and comfortable. Your shirt looks great, by the way.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Whew – I’m glad it’s not just me, Becky! Although ‘Ballgown Gardening’ sounds like it could be a whole new thing. Just lately I seem to be the girl up a tree with a chainsaw when it comes to gardening…I’m not sure how I’m going to come back from that on the garden style front. Thank you very much for McCalls 7094 – it looks like exactly the tunic I’ve been looking for – and like my shirt I suspect it will work with a more drapey-dressy fabric too. Definitely on my list. Now, where did I put that lipstick…?
      PS – delighted the lawn worked well – Ash Tree was very ‘wafty’ – perfect for our summer weather!

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Thank you! And yes – it was my first outing with a Grainline Studio pattern and I was very impressed – I will be back for more, I’m sure…

  4. Karen M says:

    Goodness me – The Purdey! I too was desperate for this haircut so my mum duly took me off into town. I sat there patiently while my brother had his hair cut at the barbers and you can imagine my horror when I realised I was next in the chair. What was she thinking?! think my style and image problems may have started here.. The 70s was a tough time to grow up from a sartorial point of view. I also feel like a total scruff most of the time so you’re certainly not alone!

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Well my hairdresser wasn’t the barber (yikes!) – but it was the one my mum went to – and I was the only one not having a perm and being stuck under a massive drier! I can smell those plastic squeezy bottles of hairspray even now…
      You are right about the 70s being difficult to grow up in style-wise. Although I think at the age of 13, *everything* is bloody difficult and any decade would be a challenge… I’m relieved to know I have company in my scruff-bubble!

  5. Marion George says:

    I think the shirt is wonderful and looks super on you. So much so that I will search out the pattern, I must make it. If it’s any encouragement to anyone, I was, I thought I was at least , Mrs Chic when I was working. I loved, still do, tailored suits and dresses and always felt good in them. But I have never done casual very well. Now that I am retired the suits don’t go with the easy life and I seem to have embraced an innner scruff which I can’t seem to get out of and don’t much like. So, Alice, you’re not alone. However, I think the shirt is a winner and to up it a notch what about something silky and a bit slinky?

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Reassurance most welcome as ever, Marion – thank you very much! We’re gradually putting together a list of ClothSpot ‘Tried ‘n’ Tested’ patterns and the ‘Archer’ is very definitely on there – it struck me as a very thoughtful pattern, well-cut and with no unnecessary frills & furbelows. I agree with you that establishing a chic ‘going out to work’ wardrobe is a very different kettle of fish to creating a ‘stylishly casual’ wardrobe. The two are probably closer now than they were 15 or 20 years ago – but they’re not the same. My working day can find me heaving in a heavy delivery, breaking off to rescue a roof-bound cat or (as on one notable occasion recently) taking an emergency chainsaw to a tree one lunchtime. (Although I did change for that one). Whether you’re retired or working (ahem) ‘flexibly’, pyjamas or holed leggings don’t really cut it on the self-esteem front. But silky slinkiness? Let’s see. Consider the gauntlet thrown down and watch this space….

  6. Jenny says:

    Some years ago I worked with someone who was the epitome of neatness; smart business suits, perfect make up, neat hair, unsnagged tights. I once shared a hotel room with her – I felt quite smart when I arrived but paled by comparison. Even for her nighttime bathroom trip she slipped on a little silk kimono to match her little silk nightie. Her toiletries were laid out neatly on her half of the shelf, and her bed was made with hospital corners within seconds of waking. Her work was as efficient. But I sometimes felt she lacked a little flair or spontaneity.

    I know that I look messy in frilly or lacey things so tend to steer clear, but my biggest threat is food – it somehow always ends up down my front. Hence my most successful tops are my stripey ones (currently wearing the Frankie from Tilly’s Stretch book in your excellent Deauville stripe with M&S skinny jeans whilst dancing around the house to Sounds of the Sixties). I think I would rather enjoy life than be too buttoned up to have fun.

    Your shirt is great. The look is just right. I haven’t made a shirt since school, when our project for 1963/4 was a shirt with stand collar, front placket, sleeve plackets, patch pocket, set-in sleeves. All done with French seams and hand sewn buttonholes. I don’t think I ever wore it but learned so many techniques that I have stood me in good stead over the years. I can’t imagine what the teacher was thinking, we were aged 13/14 and our figures naturally changed over the course of the year. I might just have to challenge myself with a grown up shirt, especially now I have a machine to finish the seams and do the buttonholes.

    Oh the Purdey – my daughter and I had matching ones! She was about 3 or 4 and I was 27. Hers was always nice, but my wayward little curl in my fringe always asserted itself. Sigh.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Jenny that made me smile so much – thank you for those insights and experiences! I sometimes feel as if I live my life in search of the sense of self-possession and poise that your work colleague appears to have had. But they elude me. I get close – and then the phone goes, I trip up over the rug as I dash to answer it, taking with me a glass of water and narrowly missing the cat, who then leaps out of the way upsetting the dog, who starts barking so much that I can’t hear the person on the other end of the phone….and the drama goes on. And food! Yes! But let’s never stop dancing in the kitchen, whatever the consequences. Friday teatimes are the cue for Blondie, Madness and the volume up. Delighted to hear that our ‘Deauville’ is involved – I love the vision in my mind’s eye.
      Thank you very much for your positive shirt comments. My equivalent 13-year-old make was a blouson in ultra-violet chambray which I regretted way before I got to the stage of setting that zip in for the third time. I also have a sample book – again, in purple – with techniques that have rarely if ever seen the light of day since (hand smocking, anyone??) but I am very proud of it.
      Let’s hear it for all the wayward girls with their wayward curls!

  7. Di says:

    Nice shirt Alice. It looks really good on you, especially with the chinos/brogues. Very smart.
    That fabric has been around for some time. I say this with confidence as I have an in use loose wrap summer dressing gown in exactly that fabric/colour, made many years ago. The fabric washes/irons well and will be with you for what seems like forever!!
    As a retired teacher I can confirm that many children arrive at school beautifully dressed by their loving parents and go home looking as if they’ve spent a day digging trenches. The deterioration, to this minority group, seems to happen during break times and/or on the way to school. You look quite tidy in comparison.
    My advice is, never run yourself down, as other people will often do it for you!!
    One way to ring the changes with that shirt pattern (it does fit nicely) is to make different cuffs/collar/front placket/pockets/pocket tops/sleeve plackets. Plain body with floral/stripe or the otherway round. It’s just a case of the colours/fabrics working with each other. Even two different florals/grahic designs could work.
    All the hard work of fitting has been done and it’s a good opportunity to use up remnants.
    Just a thought.
    I had shoulder length hair in the 70’s–no Purdy for me. A bit ‘pudding basin’ in shape.
    Am I tidy?? Well, friends say I am. Something you’re born with?? Who knows.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Hello and thank you, Di – glad you like my brogue/chino combo too. It’s an attempt to diversify from jeans – seems to be working so far. I know, I know – that fabric has been around way longer even from the ‘Archer’ pattern which is hardly new. But I make no claim on innovation here – merely a small step for Alice-kind. But I’m thrilled to know I can expect it to wash and wear well!
      I think that yes – break times were usually my downfall, along with being a general fidget-and-scuff even when at a desk. You should have seen my handwriting – thank goodness for the advent of the computer keyboard is all I can say. The advice to avoid self-deprecation however, is well-taken thank you – and as Sarah said in her comment – better to be knocking around having fun in the playground than not.
      I do like your ‘playing with plackets’ suggestions. (I think ‘placket’ may well be my word of the month – I am enjoying it immensely). I can imagine that print working nicely tucked inside a collar stand or a cuff – excellent suggestion.
      I’m inclined to agree with you about the ‘Purdey’ cut. It was an early lesson in not emulating every passing celebrity fad. As a result I’m fairly immune to the worst of Instagram which is probably no bad thing.

  8. Sarah Skinner says:

    Alice, I love the shirt and the colour on you. And that placket just looks beautiful…..
    I also adore those pictures from Primary school. Much better to have been joining in with the boys than sitting on the side lines worrying about getting white socks dirty ( imho ).

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Thank you very much indeed for the placket-love, Sarah! I’ve a real passion for those little processes that can lift a garment and which are worth expending a bit of patience over. They don’t always come off first time (or the second, or the third…) but I get there in the end. Also I’m proud of trying out a new colour – thank you for my gold star 🙂
      Totally agree with you about joining in with the boys – it was much more fun and well worth the green socks!

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