Of the many dress shirts hanging in my closet, surely the saddest is a neon green one I bought a few years ago and wore for about 60 seconds. It’s from Express, part of their 1MX line. I made the mistake of not trying it on in the store, and when I buttoned it up at home, I became the living embodiment of the expression “bursting at the seams.”
Although the shirt was marked “Large,” on me it was too small.
I should have returned it. Instead, I kept the shirt as a hostage in my battle against the tyranny of slim fit.
According to the CDC, 69 percent of Americans age 20 and over are overweight. A third of Americans are technically obese. We are bigger than ever. And yet walk into the men’s clothing section of any department store these days and you’ll find skinny little dress shirts made for sunken-chested hipsters who are in danger of being carried away by the gust from a passing bus.
They have no bulk, these snake-hipped men. But they have lots of cool shirts to choose from.
I want their shirts — colorful, striped, patterned — but I’m . . . well, let’s call me a man of substance. I have the paunch that comes from decades of experience: experience with beer, cheese, french fries, cheese fries, cheese steak, cheese cake.
I’m what you’d call “Classic.” Or, perhaps, “Traditional.”
Those are the terms shirt manufacturers use to describe what I once thought of as a “normal” shirt, a shirt that doesn’t hug your belly like a tourniquet.
“A few years ago, there were very few slim fit shirts in the market,” wrote David Sirkin, president of dress shirts at PVH Corp., in an e-mail. PVH’s brands include Van Heusen, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Arrow.
Where once slim fit was approximately 5 to 10 percent of the mix, David wrote, today it represents almost half of most retailers’ inventory.
The explosion of slim-fit shirts started three or four years ago.
“I think the reason it happened was that dress shirts used to be very big and blousy,” said Karen Alberg Grossman, editor of MR Magazine , a New York-based publication that covers men’s fashion. “There was always a lot of extra fabric on the side, unless you were a really big guy.”
When menswear designers started introducing slimmer business suits, this excess fabric became a problem. It billowed underneath narrower jackets. Tucked into tighter trousers, it made unsightly muffin tops.
“Shirts followed the suits,” Karen said. “Everything is now a little bit fitted.”
The terminology is confusing. Depending on the manufacturer, these skinny shirts are “Slim,” “Modern,” “Fitted” or “Extra-Slim.”
There’s “Tailored,” “Custom” and even something called “New York fit.” (That’s Tommy Hilfiger’s slimmest fit, which I imagine resembles the paper wrapper on a disposable drinking straw.)
Some designs are narrower in the shoulders, others across the chest.
“Unless you try the shirt on, it’s really hard to know whether or not it’s going to fit,” Karen said.
Retailers make that difficult. It’s easier to bash open a coconut with a dull rock than open a man’s dress shirt that’s been folded and pinned and encased in plastic.
I wouldn’t be so bitter if all the fancy designs I see in slim fit were available in traditional fit.
But really, aren’t slim-fit shirts at odds with today’s body types? America has become the land of “husky.” We can only suck in our guts for so long.
“There are a lot of different consumers out there in the market and we work to cater to all of our consumers’ needs,” David wrote.
According to David, younger, “body-conscious” millennial consumers prefer slim fit.
“Additionally, other consumers who want to be aspirationally young at heart also desire that same fitted look,” he wrote. “Slim does not necessarily mean the shirt will be tight — there is a range in the fit of these cuts — it just means the shirt is designed for a trimmer fit. For those that do not want a slim fit, we have fuller cuts available across the portfolio of brands we market.”
I suppose I aspire to a millennial physique, rather than my fin de siecle physique. I doubt I’m going to drop 20 pounds anytime soon, despite the elliptical machine in my basement and the baby carrots in my crisper.
But know this, millennials: In 20 years, you’ll be in my shoes. And when you are, you’ll want the shirt — the roomy, comfortable shirt — off my back.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.