The Camp Shirt: Summer’s Favourite Shirt
By Sean Longden
“A short-sleeved shirt or blouse with a notched collar and usually two breast pockets”
-Collins English Dictionary.
Newly released is our new Camp Shirt in Pale Blue.The Camp Shirt is a summer classic, a shirt that is loose, comfortable, convenient and stylish. All of this is true, but what exactly constitutes a Camp Shirt?
That is where the fun begins. It is widely accepted that the Camp Shirt is one with the distinctive ‘camp collar’. This is a collar that fixes directly to the body of the shirt rather than sitting on a collar stand. This configuration allows the collar to sit lower on the neck, making it more comfortable for the wearer especially in hot weather. The ‘camp collar’ traditionally eschews a top button, instead – in some versions – having a loop that can be fixed to a button that is hidden beneath the collar … if the wearer really wants to wear his shirt closed. Some versions of the ‘camp collar’ were sometimes seen with a button for fastening at the neck, allowing the wearer to slip on a tie if a measure of formality was required, leading to the description of it as a ‘convertible collar’. However, since it is a casual summer shirt, designed to keep the wearer cool, neck fastenings are not essential.
When worn open, the inside of the front placket becomes visible, meaning that additional fabric is inserted to conceal the interior of the placket thus replicating the pattern of a printed fabric, giving the open collar a more stylish appearance. After all, this is an open-neck shirt, not just a shirt that has been left unbuttoned.
The Camp Shirt can be both long or short sleeved, can have an array of pockets – both open or flapped - however one feature is essential: the shirt must cut loose, allowing for freedom of movement and for the air to circulate around the body, and would be expected to have a straight hem, allowing the shirt to be worn untucked. Seen below is our new Camp Shirt in Pale Blue with a straight hem.
Having established these basic details, the reader might ask themselves “How is that any different to a Hawaiian shirt or a Cuban Guayabera shirt?” Or maybe a bowling shirt? Perhaps a beach shirt? Or a shirt with ‘Capri’ or ‘Pyjama’ collar? This is where the story of the Camp Shirt starts to get confusing. Or interesting, depending on your point of view. After all, when you discover that some observers use the term ‘Cuban collar’ rather than ‘camp collar’, you start to wonder where the truth might be found.
A brief search of the internet – hardly the world’s most reliable source for a definitive answer – starts to throw up some basic points. In a 2022 Esquire article on the style, it was stated that: “Call it what you want (camp shirt, revere collar, bowling shirt, vacation shirt, I could go on...), all roads lead to its spiritual predecessor—the guayabera.” Despite that claim, other countries also lay claim to having originated the design, as noted in the 1956 book ‘The standard guide to Mexico and the Caribbean’ by Lawrence and Sylvia Martin: “As for its real origins, the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Yucatecos all claim they invented it.”
The guayabera is best known for its traditional, and distinctive, four-pocket design. According to some accounts, the pockets were handy for carrying whatever a man needed whilst working outdoors in the heat. Shirt pockets that secured with a button were better than carrying around a jacket. In another version of its history, a politician decreed that all Cuban males should wear a coat in Havana. Asked to define a coat, he stated that it should have a collar, long sleeves, buttons and four pockets. And, so the story goes, the guayabera was born. Others claimed this was a myth and that the style arrived in Cuba via Spanish bullfighters.
As one shirt company notes on its website: “The origins of the Camp shirt can be traced back to 19th-century Filipino and Cuban shirt styles. It was introduced to the United States largely by Cuban men who migrated to Miami and New York in the late 1950s and ’60s during the exodus after the Cuban Revolution.” This account further claims: “The Camp shirt was mostly inspired by short sleeve, lightweight work shirts Cuban men wore to keep cool while working outdoors in hot weather. The design was much more relaxed than that of the dress shirts worn by most American men at the time of its introduction—a refreshing escape from the buttoned-up and suited looks that were so prevalent in the lives of many men of the time.” Another account claims “Unsurprisingly, fashion-forward men of the 50s flocked to it. Leaving the traumas of the Second World War behind them, they embraced the shirt as a symbol of the social and economic freedoms of a new America. The shirt’s short-sleeves and boxy cut were a far-cry from military uniforms of the preceding decade; and being made of lightweight silk or rayon the shirt offered a touch of modern luxury.” The argument, so it appears, is that Camp Shirts reached the USA as a popular style in the 1950s.
However, that might seem at odds with the fact that American men wore similar shirts much earlier than the late 1950s. A patent application by the American menswear company John Wanamaker of Philadelphia shows that they had patented the name ‘Guayabera’ for sports shirts in 1936. As noted in ‘Colour and Design in Apparel’ by Bernice Chambers, published in 1945, “Since the successful introduction of novelty shirts, many new innovations have been introduced. 1940, Hawaiian prints were in great favour with the fashionable set in Nassau and Palm Beach.”
Other modern accounts acknowledge that the style made inroads into the American fashion scene much earlier than the 1960s, with one noting: “As large Cuban communities sprung up in-and-around Miami and New York during the early 20th century, their music and style brought a wave of exotic allure. A slyly rebellious twist on English-style shirting, the Cubans’ Guayabera offered a respite for American men who spent most days at the office in tightly buttoned-up shirts and ties. It didn’t take long for the camp-collar shirt to shed its Cuban flavor and weave itself into the fabric of mid-century America—first with the working class and later with preppier, country club types, who would pair their piqué versions with tailored trousers and loafers.” This account also claims that the Cuban-American style was the source of Europe’s adoption of the ‘camp collar’, stating “It even crossed the pond to jet-set haunts along the Mediterranean”.
In order to establish the truth of the roots of the style, we need to hunt for the origins of the name ‘Camp Shirt’. As far back as the 1770s there are records of linen camp-shirts worn by soldiers. Another early reference to a ‘camp-shirt’ was in the early 1880s when one writer referenced his “low-necked camp-shirt of dark-blue flannel”. Another came from an article published in and American journal in the late 19th Century. The reference refers to an outfit worn by the author to keep him warm whilst climbing Mount Tacoma. The reference to cold weather certainly takes us far from the modern idea of a Camp Shirt. The problem with these references is that they simply give us a name, not a style. Another of the earlier uses of the name ‘Camp Shirt’ was in 1921. However, this referred to a shirt worn by Boy Scouts. This “new green camp shirt” was described as “fashioned after the costume of the fur-hunters of the Hudson Bay Company”. A later reference to the ‘Camp Shirt’ refers to homemade shirts worn by Boy Scouts in Australia. They were described as being made from brightly coloured cottons, with fringes sewn on the sleeves: “They are made in jumper form, with about four inch sleeves and reaching about six inches beneath the waist. They are made without any collar and lace up in front like a football jersey.” From the description it is clear that these were far from the garment as we now know it. The ‘camp shirt’ was also noted as being worn by gold prospectors who were seen in Southern Rhodesia during the 1926 tour by the Prince of Wales.
The name ‘camp shirt’ has a number of possible roots, in that both ‘camping shirts’ and ‘campaign shirts’ had long histories. Is it possible that ‘camp’ is simply an abbreviation of ‘campaign’, ‘camping’ or even both? As far back as the Crimean War, British newspapers featured adverts for ‘campaign shirts’ with the name still in use in reference to military shirts during the 1920s. Furthermore, the US Army wore soft-collared ‘campaign shirts’, featuring two breast pockets, in the late 19th Century. By comparing the US Army M1883 flannel campaign shirt and images of early 20th Century adverts for ‘camping shirts’ it might be possible to see a common theme. Both feature a soft, low-set collar and two low-placed breast pockets. And both came in dark blue flannel.
The name ‘camping shirts’ was in use as early as the 1880s in Canada, with advertisers targeting men who needed comfortable outdoors clothing for boating and camping. The shirts were made of flannel or cotton sateen. The shirts came with or without collars and were available in a range of colours including white, grey, navy and even in pink striped fabric for boys. It is difficult to know whether the name of these camping shirts was simply abbreviated to ‘Camp Shirt’ due to the link between camping and later, more general, leisure activities. This would be an obvious suggestion however, with some 1950s camping shirts described as having a high collar, any guesswork might be dangerous.
Then there’s another possible root. With the ‘Camp Shirt’ often claimed as Cuban in origin, it is worth looking at the Spanish wood for shirt: Camisa. As noted by The Stanford Dictionary of 1892, this word had been Anglicised as ‘Camis’ or ‘Camus’ and was described as “a chemise, a shirt, a loose tunic of light material”. Is it a step too far to imagine that when Spanish speakers arrived in the USA wearing a ‘camisa’ that Americans conflated this with ‘camping shirts’ to create a new name?
Having established that it might be a stretch to claim that the ‘Camp Shirt’ is simply an abbreviation of ‘camping shirt’ or ‘campaign shirt’, or a misheard Spanish name, we need to look at the history of the fashion for wearing open collar shirts. During the early years of the 20th Century, in an era when the high, starched collar was the preference of ‘respectable’ society, the soft collar emerged to challenge its dominance.
In the early years of the 20th Century, new shirt styles emerged to be worn for sports. By the 1920s, shirts with a one-piece curved collar around an open-neck were available under the name of a ‘sports collar’.
The popularity of soft collared shirts among American university students also led to some soft-collar shirts being dubbed ‘campus shirts’. A comparison of an 19th Century US Army ‘campaign shirt’, with an early 20th Century ‘camping shirt and a 1925 ‘campus shirt’ shows us an ongoing theme – two breast pockets, a low collar and the four letters ‘C-A-M-P’.
Through the 1920s and into the 1930s, shirts were widely available with the flat, open collar style that is now associated with the ‘camp collar’. In the UK these were advertised for tennis and cycling, in fabrics such as rayon, artificial silk and open-weave cotton.
Despite being aimed at those taking part in sports, soft collared open-neck shirts became the favoured shirts of British men on holiday. Photos from the period show men with their shirts collars spread over their jacket collar, often unbuttoned to reveal an expanse of chest.
British manufacturers produced open collar shirts as seen in a late 1930’s Simpsons catalogue, in which they are described as ‘sweat shirts’ and ‘beach shirts’.
In 1930s France, arguably the world capital of stylish men’s leisure shirts at that time, open collar shirts were available in a wide-range of styles - long-sleeved, short-sleeved, single or double breasted – and were widely photographed in the fashionable Mediterranean resorts. Although often seen worn tucked in, straight hems were also seen, making the shirts almost indistinguishable from the styles seen in later decades. Indeed, there were shirt and short combinations that were little different from the ‘cabana sets’ of the 1950s and 1960s and four-pocket shirts that shared many features with the Cuban ‘guayabera’. In the post-war period French casual shirts continued to be popular, with floral patterned shirts that echoed Hawaiian shirts.
At the same time as Europe was developing new styles of open-necked sports shirts, so too was the USA. During the 1930s the sports shirt, with the features that we now associate with the ‘Camp Shirt’ - two breast pockets, no collar stand, spread collar and loop-buttoning neck, started to become popular, often being associated with the casual styles worn by Hollywood stars. As noted by the respected menswear blogger Ethan Wong, although the style was widely worn through the 1930s and 1940s (well in advance of when many bloggers claim the style was introduced): “we haven’t found anything from the vintage era that refers to them as “cuban” or “camp collar” shirts … Based on conversations we’ve had with other vintage enthusiasts (who have scans and physical copies of menswear catalogs), there isn’t any mention of the type of shirt other than sport shirt, convertible collar, or loop collar.” Ok, we could add names like “the two-in-one shirt” or the “doubler shirt”, both names being used by Arrow Shirts in the early 1940s, but the sentiment remains the same. The dual nature of the collar also led to one brand describing the style as “the shirt with the Jekyll and Hyde complex.”
With the style being popular among students for casual day wear, this might be another source of the style’s latter day name. As can be seen from this 1940 advert for Arrow Shirts, the style was referred to as a “campus sports-shirt”. The step from this name to ‘camp shirt’ doesn’t take a great leap of imagination.
In 1944 the National Association of Shirt and Pyjama Manufacturers proposed standardised measurements for sports shirts produced in the USA. The style of shirt shown, with an open collar without a neck band is firm evidence that this style of shirt was popular in the USA long before the late 1950s as has been claimed by some latter-day bloggers and menswear writers.
In the UK, as the years passed, short sleeved shirts with open collars were no longer sold just for sports. UK manufacturers accepted that the style was simply for leisure use and, by the end of the 1950s, sports and beach shirts were accepted as standard fashion wear. Printed ‘South Seas’ designs became available on short sleeved rayon shirts and striped, plaid and abstract patterns on long sleeved gabardine, sanforized cotton, corduroy, rayon and gingham shirts. As seen in the 1958 Canadian ‘Army & Navy’ catalogue, some of these shirts featured a loop closure at the neck and had straight hems. It is worth noting that even in the late 1950s, these shirts were still simply captioned ‘sports shirts’ with no mention of being ‘Camp Shirts’.
Where the subject gets further complicated is that, whilst some brands used the words ‘sports shirt’ for a shirt without a collar stand, other brands used ‘sports shirt’ simply to reference a more casually styled shirt with a standard attached collar. Added to that, ‘sports shirt’ was also used interchangeably with ‘polo shirt’ and ‘beach shirt’ both by advertisers and fashion writers. Regardless of the name given to this garment, what fabrics were traditionally used for this style of shirt? Since it was primarily a sports shirt, the most obvious fabrics were linen and cotton, although silk was used at the higher end of the market. Rayon was also popular as was gabardine which, due to its heavier weight, produced shirts that draped well and held their shape. For those in colder climates, the style was also available in corduroy and wool twill. All manner of patterns were also available: plains, stripes, hoops, plaids, flecks and bold prints of the type associated with Hawaiian shirts.
The reason for the success of the Camp Shirt was most likely that it could be worn as a leisure shirt or as a garment for more formal occasions. American adverts, in particular those aimed at college students, emphasised the convertible collar and stressed that the shirt could be worn with the collar open during the day then with it closed, and combined with a suit and tie, for the evening. As one 1937 advert for a shirt with what was described as a ‘polo roll collar’ noted: “Wear it open for active sports … Wear it buttoned around the clubhouse.”
Whatever name you choose for the style - camp shirt, sports shirt, Cuban collar shirt etc – it’s the perfect look for a summer’s day. Looking for a camp shirt true to the 1930s and 1940s? Shop our Camp Shirt collection now.