Not at All Shabby: The Chamois Shirt

Flat lay of a blue L.L.Bean chamois shirt
Image is my own / All rights reserved

This week marks the day seemingly every menswear fan I follow on social media has had circled on their calendars for months: As of this Friday, we are officially in autumn, that magical time of year that warms every clothing enthusiast’s heart even as it chills their extremities. Finally, with the heat of summer retreating, we can pull out all the sweaters, jackets, and knit hats that the vitamin-D deficient among us have dreamed about since the end of spring. It’s time to layer up again and, for me, that more often than not means wearing a chamois shirt. 

If you’re a handy type who spends Sunday afternoons doing your best Mr. Miyagi act on the car bonnet, you probably know chamois as a supple kind of leather prised for its absorbent, nonabrasive properties. If you’re more likely to spend your weekends on the sofa in search of the perfect pair of driving shoes to compliment that forgotten motor rusting away in your driveway, you might be more familiar with chamois cloth. The latter is a napped fabric, usually cotton, that is soft to the touch and named after the leather material it resembles. It’s not dissimilar to flannel, although it tends to be heavier, softer, and more tightly woven with a velvety texture that would not look out of place on a billiards table. As to the pronunciation, ‘shamwaa’ and even ‘chammy’ apparently do the rounds, though the more common practice favours ‘shammy’, including among the folks who first introduced the style.

Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

The chamois shirt dates back to 1927 when it was brought into the world by the US outdoor stalwart L.L.Bean. As with many of their early products, the style in question developed out of personal use and testing by the company’s founder Leon Leonwood Bean on his own hunting and fishing adventures in the woods of Maine. It was originally known as the ‘Leatherette’ shirt in reference to the chamois leather it takes after, but was redubbed in 1933 when it also acquired a slightly altered collar and more slanted pockets. The pocket design — now perhaps the shirt’s most recognisable detail — was apparently the result of Mr Leon Leonwood Bean’s desire to hook fishing flies with greater ease on the outermost corners.

Chamois shirts were originally conceived as a lightweight alternative to buckskin and built to be warm and windproof, hence the cotton fabric’s tight weave and multiple brushings. It was only available in tan at first, but just about every other shade has followed since, including forest green, navy, slate blue, barley, ivory, buff-yellow, and so on, although red has long been a particularly popular choice and was the second shade to hit the market. According to one bit of 1960s catalogue copy, ‘The scarlet is a good fishing shirt as red repels black flies. Also safe for dragging in deer without a coat.’

Ever since their introduction nearly a century ago, L.L.Bean’s chamois shirts have been popular with outdoorsmen and have become one of the brand’s signature products. They are similarly popular on the vintage market, with a seller like Brian Davis of Wooden Sleepers being a longtime advocate, in addition to finding a place within the heritage menswear revival owing to their hardy build and sterling reputation. 

Of course, L.L.Bean is far from the only place where you can get a chamois shirt. Any number of rugged-minded or workwear-adjacent retailers like Lands End, Filson, Taylor Stitch, Alex Mill, Todd Snyder, and &Sons offer similar designs. I got mine from L.L.Bean a couple of years ago and can attest to their much-touted warmth, comfort, and versatility. Living in Scotland, I tend to find a use for them pretty much year-round, but there is no time that I’m more thankful for their cosy presence in my wardrobe than in the autumn. They have become every bit as evocative of the season for me as seeing the leaves change or lighting my first woodfire.

Part of the joy of the chamois is that it has a Swiss-Army-knife-like quality of being a shirt you can wear as is, or as a bit of layering, or as a jacket in its own right. Today, for example, since it’s quite chilly, I’m wearing one over a white T-shirt tucked into a pair of jeans in the manner of an old-timey woodsman, but on any other day I might pop one on with the collar turned up as a shirt jacket or under a coat as an extra layer that won’t put me to shame when my outerwear inevitably comes off. They also go with just about every pair of casual trousers I own, so there is rarely a week that passes outside of the height of summer where I’m not reaching for a chamois before heading out the door.

Man wearing an olive green L.L.Bean chamois shirt
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Their virtues feel nearly endless: They are both softer and warmer than any other winter shirt I own, they last a lifetime by all accounts, and they only seem to get better with age, which can be said of a lot of shoes, trousers, and jackets, but not of all that many shirts. I’m also not alone in my obsession. Here’s Derek Guy elegising the self-same shirt:

‘I love chamois shirts because they’re more than just comfortable — they’re calming. They feel cosy like you’ve never left your bed in the morning. The material is soft, thick, and gives you the same reassuring feeling as wrapping a blanket around your shoulders. Every physical movement brushes the fabric against your skin, making you feel relaxed. Most of all, I love how the outdoorsy shirt naturally layers under the hard exterior of workwear — leather jackets, denim truckers, French chore coats, and the like. It’s as though you lined the underside of a protective shell with a soft layer of brushed felt.’

Despite all of this affection and the ample use I get out of my trusty chamoix, I have just two of them at the moment, a navy blue one and an olive-coloured number that’s my favourite. But even the slightest provocation is bound to have me doing that very blokey thing of buying the exact same item in every colour I can find. Actually, you might say that writing an article about chamois shirts might just be the thing to tip me over the edge into buying a whole lot more of them. In fact, looking at the L.L.Bean website now I see they’ve just restocked some rather nice new colours. And did I mention they do plaid versions as well? I’ve also always been tempted to get one of the Signature Collection ones…

Anyway, totally unrelated, I must be off — lots to do and all!