A (very) premium field shirt (or is it?)

Warning: If you’re a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops kind of outdoor person, please skip the rest of this article to avoid, a) choking on your coffee, and, b) sending me scurrilous emails. For the rest of you, here’s a question:

Can an outdoor shirt be worth $180? (You, in the T-shirt! See? I told you to stop reading. We’ll pause while you clean off your keyboard.)

Short answer: No, if . . .

  1. It doesn’t fit.
  2. It’s made in Hong Kong.
  3. It’s over-engineered to the point that it hampers function.

Those who know me know I’m rarely seen not wearing a cotton khaki shirt. Long experience has shown the combination to be versatile wear for most of the places I frequent, from southern Arizona to southern Kenya. Fashionwise I should have been wiped out in the last mass extinction, but I like the look of a tucked-in business-like khaki shirt, and it lends a professional appearance that’s important for someone engaged in an outdoor profession. That same experience has convinced me that spending extra for a high-quality shirt pays off in the long run, in durability, fit, comfort—yes, even looks.

At least, up to a point.

I’ve written about the demise of the legendary outfitters Willis and Geiger (here). Recently Burt Avedon, the last respectable owner of W&G, created a new company with his longtime partner, Susan Colby. The first product the collaboration is the obviously W&G-inspired Signature Field Shirt, the link to which was sent me by a sartorially astute friend. Click—okay, great looking shirt. One hundred percent long-staple cotton Bush Poplin, check. Tea-died British tan, check. Zippered pockets behind the chest pockets, suitable for passport, check. Price? Oh. Ouch. 

Just when I’d gotten used to the idea of $100 Filson shirts.

Still, I thought (okay, rationalized), while I’m certainly not rich enough to buy four or five of these things to abuse in the field, if it’s all that it’s advertised to be it would be nice to have one for, let’s call it ‘dress khaki functions’—lectures, classes, book signings and the like. Let’s check sizing, and . . . . sigh

I’m going to be diplomatic, because I do know a few genuine outdoorsmen who are just big guys (Andy, are you reading?), but—when I see a size range in a shirt that begins with medium and goes to XXL (52-inch chest), I have to wonder if those products are really targeted at active, athletic travelers, or more at those who want to project the image of an active, athletic traveler despite the fact that they have attained a somewhat less-than-active physique. (I’m what I consider a rather ordinary 5’9” and 150 pounds, but my my shirt size these days is considered ‘small.’) To double-check, I looked at the ($134!) Avedon & Colby ‘British Army Officer’s Shorts.’ Sure enough, the smallest waist size was 34 (I’m a 31), the largest a 42. The A&C website shows a wartime photo of Field Marshal Montgomery and several officers in North Africa wearing identical shorts; despite what I bet were decent upper-rank rations, none of them looks to be anywhere near a 42 waist (check those knobby knees).

I wrote an email to Avedon & Colby mentioning my history with Willis and Geiger and expressing my disappointment with A&C’s portly sizing scheme—and immediately received a lengthy personal reply from Susan Colby, who swore that if I’d been a small in W&G shirts, the medium A&C shirt should fit me just fine. The size chart measurements seemed to bely this, but I’m swayed by personal service from any company these days, and clicked ‘Buy Now.’

First impressions were positive—it was indeed a good-looking shirt, with high-quality stitching and buttons. But, first major fail: It was made in Hong Kong. Frankly, at the price, this left me a bit stunned. There are shirts made in Hong Kong that I think are worth $180, but they’re from companies such as Ascot Chang and are are tailored to one’s exact measurements in ultra-premium fabrics.

And . . . well, I tried it on and presented myself without prelude in front of my wife. Her first comment was, “Isn’t it too big?” And it was—my suspicions were entirely correct. The shoulder seams were good, and the cuffs hit the back of my hands; everything else was voluminously too large. I could have fit Monty in there with me (and yes, I know all about those rumors). The ‘retractable bi-swing back,’ ostensibly a feature to enhance freedom of movement, only made me feel like there was an extra quarter yard of fabric bunched up behind my arms, which indeed there was—it refused to ‘retract.’ The collar tab, designed to secure against drafts, instead flapped in my face when left loose. Had I kept this shirt I would have cut it off or sewn on a button to secure it folded away.

Not all the features were superfluous. The zippered pockets would secure a passport and cash against street theft. The extended sun collar in back would prevent morning or afternoon sunburn. The bellows front pockets were actual bellows front pockets (listening, Filson?). The hidden button-down collar tabs prevent them flapping (which makes the loose flap all the more strange). The stitching details were all what one would rightfully expect.

Obviously, given the sizing, I returned the Avedon & Colby shirt (an effortless and polite process). Would I have kept it had it fit? I don’t think so. I think the bulky and uncomfortable bi-swing back, the annoying collar tab, and the steep price-vs.-origin would have outweighed the quality fabric and construction and the functional features. Just to reassure myself, I put on one of my old Willis and Geiger bush shirts (sans bi-swing back), and shouldered one of our side-by-side shotguns. I felt utterly no restriction of movement despite the much slimmer fit. I can’t help thinking the bi-swing back is a solution to a problem that does not exist—unless, perhaps, you’re of considerably larger girth than I . . .

While the Signature Field Shirt was not what I’d hoped, I’m still happy to see Burt Avedon and Susan Colby producing high-quality field wear. I hope their line expands with more products and more sizes—and perhaps some production brought back from overseas.

Okay—commence scurrilous emails . . .