CHICAGO -- From trendy city bistros to conservative corporate boardrooms, denim shirts are showing up in unexpected places.
"Americans have a love affair with denim," says Stephen Davis, owner of two Davis for Men clothing stores in Chicago. "Historically, fashion trends have started at the top and filtered down to the masses, but denim rose out of the working class. As hard as the fashion industry may have tried to subdue or kill it, denim keeps cropping up."
Blue jeans trace their roots to the 1850s when Levi Strauss, an enterprising Bavarian immigrant, began supplying them to California gold miners. However, denim shirts are a 20th century phenomenon. Making its debut in 1959, the first Levi denim shirt featured orange topstitching and snap closures, says Lynn Downey, a Levi historian.
Today, things have gotten more complicated as denim shirt manufacturers offer as many options as automobile makers. Shirts have tab collars, long-pointed collars and button-down collars. There are one-pocket and two-pocket models. There are pockets with buttons, pockets with snaps. There are light
weight, midweight and heavyweight denims. In lieu of small, medium and large, there are sizes for specific neck and sleeve measurements for men who want a more fitted look.
And, there's more than just blue. Denim shirts are showing up in mauve, gold, green and rust for spring, says Sid Shapiro, owner of Syd Jerome men's store in Chicago.
And pulling together new looks with them is easy, says Phyllis Collins, buyer of men's designer apparel at Marshall Field & Co. Here are a few guidelines to get you going:
* Office: Team up a finely woven, lightweight denim shirt with a navy blue suit and tie. "The larger the pattern of the tie, the better," says Noel Stebnitz, assistant manager of Embassy Square Ltd., a men's store in suburban Chicago.
* After-five: Sport jacket, charcoal pants. Button up the denim shirt all the way, but leave off the tie. Collins also likes the shirt unbuttoned with a T-shirt showing underneath. "It's a very hip look," she says.
* Southwest: Denim shirt, jeans, cowboy boots, silver-tipped belt.
* Country: Unbuttoned denim shirt over turtleneck, jeans, penny loafers, braided belt.
* To mix or not to mix: Collins frowns on wearing multiple denim items together: "It looks too rural."