It may look like denim, but chambray is altogether different. Lighter in weight, softer in feel, this unique fabric is more elegant and arguably more versatile, with a slight sheen that gives it entry to dress codes where denim cannot follow.
While denim is found most commonly in jean form, chambray is best known as shirting fabric. The chambray shirt is one of menswear’s classic pieces. The same shirt could pair as easily with a suit as it does with shorts. Want to know more? Here’s everything you need to know about this versatile cloth and where you should shop for the best chambray shirts in the business.
Chambray Shirt Buying Considerations
The way a chambray shirt fits can drastically change how and where you wear it. Buy a slim-fitting chambray shirt and it’s a perfect accompaniment to a suit or separates. Whereas, if you opt for a more traditional relaxed cut, you’ve got a workwear staple ideally suited to casual, laidback looks.
The classic chambray work shirt comes with two buttoned chest pockets, large in size and usually double stitched. But, some chambray shirts can be found without pockets, and with button-down collars as opposed to traditional, flyaway style.
The point is, chambray shirts come in many forms, so choose wisely when it comes to purchasing for yourself. A general rule of thumb is that pockets make the shirts appear more casual, so if you want to add a workwear flavour to your outfit, that’s the way to go.
Like denim, the most popular and common colour of chambray is blue. Luckily, blue is arguably the most versatile colour there is. It happily pairs with browns, greys, greens and neutrals, so pick your poison and wear it with pretty much everything in your existing wardrobe. You can occasionally find chambray shirts in light red, or even off-white, so shop around if you’re after something more off-piste.
How To Wear A Chambray Shirt
As mentioned previously, chambray shirts can work with tailoring. They can excel with tailoring, in fact, but you have to find one with the right cut. It should be slim and tailored, preferably without pockets. We don’t have strong opinions on the buttoned-down collar either way.
Find that chambray shirt and it could be the easiest way to dress down that mid-brown, unstructured suit you’ve been meaning to wear. Make sure the suit is unstructured though. Chambray is an inherently casual fabric, and pairing it with a seriously sharp Savile Row number might be just a step too far.
This is the space where chambray is most at home. It’s arguably the definitive smart-casual shirt, and can be worn in seemingly infinite ways. For a contemporary look that makes use of classic menswear staples, try wearing one above a pair of dark blue, pleated trousers. Leave it untucked and layer it over a plain white T-shirt, finishing with suede Desert boots or minimal sneakers.
Chambray is an incredibly lightweight, breathable fabric, despite its hard-wearing durability. For spring and summer then, it’s a great alternative to linen and classic cotton shirting. For a laid-back, casual summer look, wear a relaxed chambray shirt over a pair of chino shorts in stone or navy. Leave it untucked to channel a bit of Call Me By Your Name, and finish with a pair of espadrilles. An easy outfit that will take you from the park to the bar in style.
The Best Chambray Shirt Brands
Designed with function and practicality in mind, New York brand Todd Synder is the go-to for chambray shirts that are made to last from durable yet soft cotton. Look out for its off-white work shirt, which combines perfectly with navy chinos and brown leather boots.
Scandinavian brand Norse Projects is well versed in producing understated menswear in expertly sourced fabrics. Therefore it makes sense for its chambray shirts to be both minimal in design and classic in cut. Wear over tapered trousers and white sneakers and you can’t go wrong.
Rugged workwear brand Taylor Stitch makes garments that are built for the long haul and designed to wear in beautifully over time. This is never more apparent than with its line of chambray shirts, which are cut from 100% organic cotton and come in a tailored fit that looks great worn tucked or untucked. Wear and wash them regularly and watch as they develop their own unique character.
Renowned for its contemporary updates on classic preppy staples, J Crew combines well-thought-out design with considered fabrics. Its chambray shirts are no different, and are available in modern, tailored fits, making them ideal for pairing with soft tailoring.
Brooks Brothers helped popularise the classic Oxford cloth button down, inspiring a generation of snappy dressers with its classic fit and soft collar roll. But the US brand isn’t afraid of experimenting with its designs, as seen here with its updated takes on the chambray shirt.
King of prep, Ralph Lauren’s chambray shirts are timeless. Available in a range of styles including the classic, twin pocket work shirt, they’re simple to style, whether you pair them with other Americana staples or modern tailoring.
Although most well known for its T-shirts, British heritage brand Sunspel does a fine line in other, equally well-executed wardrobe staples. Its chambray shirts are cut from Japanese selvedge cotton, and come available in other easy-to-wear hues including ecru.
At the more luxurious end of the spectrum, Loro Piana’s designs are always classic and easy to wear, but it’s the fabrics that set them apart. The Italian brand has its own fabric factory, spinning wool and cotton at a level far greater than almost any brand in the world. Its chambray shirts are therefore expertly made and remarkably soft – two traits reflected in the price tag.
Well known for its luxurious wardrobe essentials, Brunello Cucinelli hand-makes all its clothes from its own factory in Solomeo, Italy. They’re crafted to the highest standards possible, and designed to last a lifetime as a result. If you’re after a chambray shirt that’ll look as good now as it will in 20 years’ time, your search ends here.
History Of The Chambray Shirt
Like denim, chambray has a history that dates back centuries and, like denim, it began in France. Chambray was first said to be made in the 1500s in Cambrai, a region to the far north east of Paris. It was used for shirting and accessories back then, and with time became popular with farmers and manual workers due to its hard-wearing yet breathable structure.
Unlike denim, which has a diagonal twill weave, chambray is a plain weave made with contrasting colours (usually blue and white). This is what makes it softer and smoother, and sometimes gives the fabric a little sheen.
In more modern times, chambray became standard issue for the US Navy from 1901 through to World War II. This was when we began to see the style we know and love today – US sailors often wore short sleeve versions of the chambray work shirt, with twin chest pockets and contrast white stitching.
Like many other garments worn by US soldiers, the chambray shirt was then heavily adopted by civilians following the war, partly as a badge of honour, partly because the shirts were comfortable and remarkably useful pieces of clothing.
In the decades that followed, chambray shirts became synonymous with workwear, a clothing niche that became incredibly popular in the 2010s, with the rise of reproduction brands and Japanese specialist outfitters. Today, the chambray shirt is renowned for its versatility and ease of wear, and will surely go down as one of the true classics of modern menswear.