A Gentleman’s Guide to Linen

An ode to summer's most iconic fabric.
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An ode to summer's most iconic fabric.
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If flannel is the fabric of the winter months, linen belongs to the summer. Except, unlike your pilling red-and-black checked shirt, you don’t have to pretend to be a lumberjack or worry about your facial hair upkeep to wear linen. In fact, effortlessness is the best thing about the thin, breezy material: Linen just is. It doesn’t get in the way. It’s the perfect medium through which to live unencumbered.

Linen shirts have long been a summer staple, but they’re particularly relevant in a menswear moment that’s all about being rugged and prepared, as if you’re going to need a hard-wearing leather gear bag, industrial work jacket, and an axe to go work in an air-conditioned office. Wearing a linen shirt, in a light pastel or even a pleasantly colorful madras, communicates that you don’t need anything but what’s on you, and even that much is negotiable. It’s the clothing version of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Not to be confused with its denser, denim-like cousin chambray (so 2014), linen is made solely from the fibers of the flax plant. The name comes from the Latin word for the plant, linum, and it’s correspondingly one of the earliest man-made fabrics. 36,000-year-old linen fibers were discovered in Georgia in 2009. Ancient priests wore it and pharaohs were buried in it.

Lately, linen is simply part of the palette of global fashion, as easy to encounter on the streets of Istanbul as Williamsburg. As for concerns that a loose, wafting shirt somehow degrades masculinity, Leonardo DiCaprio donned full linen for his megalomaniacal turn as The Great Gatsby, and the pre-Gonzo journalist Tom Wolfe is known for his white linen suits. (Fight the temptation to overcompensate; one linen item at a time is more than enough.)

It’s not hard to find a great linen shirt, and it won’t even cost as much as your usual Oxford. Uniqlo has a perfectly serviceable high-end version for $35. J.Crew sports classic Irish linen for $80. Club Monaco’s $90 striped linen button down is a solid choice for active day trips.

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But once you go professional, you won’t look back. Try Ouur’s archly minimalist linen raised neck shirt, only available in Japan and San Francisco (of course). Zegna has tightly tailored long- and short-sleeves. The Japanese brand Boarder makes a pure linen t-shirt with stripes like the sun setting over the beach. Still, maybe don’t buy this weirdly double-breasted Balmain number, unless the subterranean German dance club you’ve been partying at suddenly hosts a beach day. 

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Fancy sweatpants and “athleisure” wear have lately become men’s fashion memes. Linen plays off the same impulses—sure, we all want to be comfortable—but it avoids the utter moral abandonment required to wear your gym clothes outside all day. After all, linen was made to be flexible, breathable, and suitable for many weather conditions. Pair a shirt with some board shorts or light chinos rolled up before the point at which they become flood pants and you’re ready to go drinking, surfing, or both at once. 

It’s this low maintenance quality that makes linen so appealing. The material wrinkles naturally, so it’s hard to complain if an outfit isn’t crisp. Without button stays, the shirt collar leafs tend to point in different directions like you’ve just been rolling around in bed, which, hey, you probably have been. Tuck it in, or don’t! As one friend and fellow linen aficionado put it,  “They look nice ironed, but if you don’t iron them people are like, ‘ooh how dishabille’ rather than ‘what a slob.’” Looking fashionably disheveled while being actually sloppy: Have we ever aspired to anything more for summer?

Linen is the essence of sprezzatura, the Italian word for “spirit and nonchalance: cool,” as the writer Robert Angell put it in The New Yorker. (Menswear bloggers have recently taken to shortening it to “sprezzy”—a decidedly un-sprezzy slang, if we’re keeping score.) The thing is, you don’t even have to try to attain a look with linen. The material gives you no choice but to let go a little, to stop caring that everything’s not perfect. 

Just please, don’t go for white. It actually gets messy when you only want to acknowledge that life itself is messy, sometimes. If you can’t stomach wearing brighter colors, pick up something in gray or a safari canvas hue, closer to linen’s natural tones. That way, when you get splashed with a gin-and-tonic Super Soaker you can either ignore it or rinse it out and wait 30 seconds till the shirt dries on its own in the afternoon sun. #chillsitch

Photos by Everett Collection