I didn’t start thinking about how the barrel cuffs of an oxford shirt should be worn in college or in prep school or even upon reading the 121st line of Eliot’s Prufrock. Instead, I picked it up as an eight year old in 1990 visiting my sister at her liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. I was fascinated by the college guys rolling up the sleeves of their oxford shirts while also rolling these large metal canisters into the basement of their fraternity houses.
One of my sister’s boyfriends in college, I’ll call him E.B., even had a habit of rolling up the cuff of his short sleeve polo shirts. Long before the slim fit wave coursed through the menswear market, I see this now as a small nod to better aesthetics and fit. To this day I feel uncomfortable with a polo shirt sleeve just worn regularly; I have to cuff the fabric at least once, just like E.B.. It isn’t some sort of suns-out, guns-out braggadocio, it’s about what feels natural, and I learned that from him.
The author, aged 9 or so, on his sister's college campus. Note the bean mocs, no socks and rolled cuffs already.
There’s a beautiful poem by the contemporary poet Cynthia Rylant called, “God Went to Beauty School,” which describes how God, “got into nails...because He’d always loved / hands-- / hands were some of the best things / He’d ever done...” and that working in the salon enabled him to “admire those delicate / bones, just above knuckles, / delicate as birds wings...” Wrists, too, are a beautiful creation, like the delicate fingers described by Rylant, and rolling your cuffs lets the world see them.
Oxford shirts that don’t cuff well can be a dealbreaker for me. Standbys like Ralph Lauren and Billy Reid work well, though there’s nothing like the six-pleat shirring at the barrel cuff of a Brooks Brothers oxford to give weight and integrity to the end of the shirt. It’s a strange thing, after all these years my eye is trained to look at the sheering of a shirt to tell if it’s Brooks Brothers, just in the same way I might now instinctively look to a woman’s left hand to determine if she’s married.
Classic six-pleat sheering, from a BB shirt in my closet.
Personally I always roll the cuff over the shirt and repeat the process a second time. Once in awhile I’ll flip for a third, letting the sleeve rest above the elbow, though it can get one dangerously close to the awful short sleeved dress shirt seemingly worn by Peoria-based IRS accountants and well, the Beastie Boys in their “Sabotage” video.
I can see someone reading this and wondering, why bother meditating so much on a flimsy topic? I get that, but I believe there’s more to it. How we interact with clothing is a fascinating symbiosis of clothing preference, sociological background and personal history. What is second nature to me now was born at a very impressionable age on my sister’s college campus. Childhood perspective is always skewed, but at the time E.B. and the frat guys seemed like inspiring figures and I wanted to emulate every (good) thing about them. Now, nearly ten years out of my own college graduation, I see how limited that vision was. A college student isn’t someone larger than life - they’re still adolescents. But somewhere along the line a group of guys planted an idea in my head about how a man should look and dress, and it’s never left me.