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A Little Sartorial Cool fo the Working Man

March 06, 1997|ROBIN GIVHAN

The upscale end of the fashion industry has long had a thing for the blue-collar man.

Italian designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana launched their careers by re-creating the clothing of the salt-of-the-earth laborers of southern Italy and Sicily. The design team Richard Edwards has had an ongoing fascination with lumberjacks, auto racers and rescue workers. And the hip-hop clothing scene is filled with fashion references to police officers and firefighters.

Now, the short-sleeve dress shirt has landed on the runways.

Who is not familiar with the fellow in the cotton-blend white shirt, short sleeves flapping in the wind, requisite tie looped around the neck in an unfashionably large knot? He often is a man more concerned with comfort and familiarity than with first impressions and issues of style.

Designers have lent sartorial cool to the uniform of the working man. At Calvin Klein, for instance, in a spring collection emphasizing natural, luxurious fibers, a longer, more fitted and sophisticated short-sleeve shirt played a starring role.

In this age of Dilbert, champion of cubicle dwellers, the short-sleeve dress shirt is working-man chic--right up there with coveralls and Caterpillar work boots.

It is the shirt of "NYPD Blue" antihero Andy Sipowicz.

"I did them because . . . they represent the common man, the everyday Joe," says "NYPD Blue" costume designer Brad Loman. "I didn't want [Sipowicz] to be in long sleeves turned up. This is someone who doesn't want to fuss. . . . He's a totally no-frills, bare-bones guy."

The shirts almost never have button-down collars. The sleeves are a precise 9 1/2 inches long to achieve that unflattering, boxy look. And when Loman can't find just what he wants, he doesn't hesitate to take a pair of scissors to an expensive Faconnable tattersall plaid shirt. (Det. Bobby Simone, by the way, wears Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani. "His uncle works in the garment industry," Loman explains.)

Short-sleeve dress shirts imply a beleaguered number-cruncher, a cog in the system, an unsung hero of the labor force and a bargain shopper. (Until designers got their hands on them, these short-sleeve styles were the domain of lower-priced manufacturers.)

For those with a knowing sensibility, the short-sleeve dress shirt now is a hip wardrobe addition. It's fashion in an anti-fashion way, like Kramer's bowling shirts--so bad that it's good.

But for a fellow who still cares about such things as sartorial rules, the short-sleeve dress shirt remains an oxymoron.

"At Britches, there is no such thing," Billingsly says. "A dress shirt is made with long sleeves."

Still, one wonders: Can designer versions of aluminum lunch pails be far behind?

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