#55 The Pioneer Shirt

By no means am I a fashion historian or even a well-researched enthusiast, but this shirt has always evoked to me the old days of the American West. The sturdy linen material, the high-neck collar, the loose sleeves that fasten close at the wrist – I feel like it wouldn’t look out of place next to a covered wagon bumping along on the Oregon trail. As a child, I was always fascinated with pioneers and nineteenth-century rural living (I loved Little Housing of the Prairie), though I now realize that period of European settlement should probably not be romanticized. Aside from the problematic associations, this shirt brings me back to that innocent girl who desperately wanted to live in a log house in Wisconsin, while playing into my fantasy of becoming a homesteader with a fleet of chicken and goats. We all have our dreams.

Beige Button Down

Purchased from: Salvation Army, 2020 (Jones New York Sport)

Cost: $8

Material: 100% linen

Wears counted: 24

The shirt was a pandemic purchase, bought from my favourite thrift store in my former neighbourhood during last year’s brief reopening of in-store shopping. Like many pieces in my wardrobe, it was a chance find that I wasn’t looking for. Yet, it’s become a beloved workhorse, adding a new mood and flavour to my existing outfits year round.

The shirt is made of a loose-weave linen that reminds me of the texture of reusable produce bags. But unlike those scratchy cloths, it feels amazingly soft and worn in. The light oat milk colour adds to the rustic style, as does the material’s tendency to fall in an artfully wrinkled fashion. What I enjoy most about this shirt is the design: the old-fashioned, utilitarian look with well thought-out details, starting with the mandarin collar, down the seams of the side panels to the slits along the hem. One of my favourite features is the buttons on the sleeves, allowing them to be rolled them up and fastened – a practical design choice that comes in handy as I toil in the kitchen making homemade rye bread, pretending to be a good pioneer woman.

As someone who likes the juxtaposition traditionally masculine and feminine pieces, the boyish style of this shirt has paired well with my skirts and dresses. While we’re on the theme of contrast, the rugged texture of the shirt pairs nicely with the abundant silks in my wardrobe, balancing the daintiness and sweetness of those pieces. Another thing to note is the shirt’s ability to transform depending on how it’s worn, from everyday casual (sleeves rolled, unbuttoned) to put-together (sleeves down, buttoned up, tucked in) to fashionable (collar flipped inside, tied at the waist).

Lately, I’ve worn it most in every casual mode, over a top and skirt combo or a dress. I’ll also wear it with shorts or pants for a “soft” androgynous look (as opposed to Comme des Garçons’ “hard”). During the summer months, I almost always carry this button down with me in a tote bag because it’s so easy to chuck on as a topper over whatever else I’m wearing. As we transition into colder weather, I’ll be buttoning it up to the neck and tucking it into a pair of trousers with some boots. Switching from the outside in, I’m going to experiment with layering it underneath warmer pieces — like my navy open cardigan or a denim jacket. Someday, maybe I’ll acquire a Tilley wool hat to complete the Western-inspired ensemble.

Surprisingly, this simple garment has had a deep impact on my personal style and how I’ve dressed in the year that I’ve had it. Since it’s entered my life, I’ve been wearing it non-stop, and I can see myself continuing to wear it and love it for a long time to come. It’s the kind of shirt that you wear until it tears — and then you patch it up and wear it some more. As they did in the old days.

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