The Shirt Is Shaping Up as the Big and Bold News in Menswear

Times Staff Writer

If there was ever a time to think big when you think about menswear, this is it. Especially when you think about shirts. The latest shapes are oversize to the point of being colossal. The newest fabric designs are so big and bold that they could be wallpaper prints. And colors strong enough to glow in the dark are the last word for spring.

This is a year of major fashion revisions for men. And if you want to buy into it, a big shirt could be a good place to start. As Robert Forrest of the Maxfield boutique says: "Some men may see it as a risk, but it's not a huge investment."

For all its bold scale, it's an easy look to adapt to an existing wardrobe. "A loose, white shirt with deep armholes looks good worn outside black jeans. Maybe you'd wear a bright blue jacket over that," Forrest suggests. "A big striped shirt goes with an older linen suit."

An essential ingredient of the new look requires wearing the shirt untucked. But it doesn't have to be a shirt with tails. A lot of the new styles are square-cut at the bottom, like '50s aloha shirts.

They all seem to go well with the oversize jackets that a number of younger men bought last year. It was a purchase inspired by British rock musicians, Stephanie Wilson, men's fashion buyer for the Factory in Los Angeles, says.

"This year," she adds, "the same guys want big paisley shirts to mix with big plaid pants. They let the shirttails fall over the pants, then they put on a pair of suspenders. Last year's jacket fits over the whole thing."

It may seem mysterious that the new look is cropping up everywhere at once. But in fact, it has a lineage, one as cross-cultural as Japanese peasant and British Boy George. One drawn from as far afield as fantasy French and classic Italian design. Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace and Nino Cerruti pioneered the sedate version of larger-than-life shirts. They use solid, soft-striped or muted plaid fabrics.

If they show the shirts worn untucked over baggy trousers, the trousers are subtle tweed or quiet plaid patterns. And everything is made of lightweight linen or supple wool to further soften the effect. It's all an extension of the boxier jackets and pleated pants that the Italians have been styling for several years now.

The bolder version of big has a Parisian spearhead in the form of Jean-Paul Gaultier. Even his most basic styles for men are done up in party fabrics like plaid taffeta. They often come in carnival colors such as yellow, turquoise and lime. They're as close to slapstick as any legitimate fashion gets right now.

But before there was Gaultier, the New Wave Japanese designers stole fashion headlines with their loose, wide clothes for men in darker tone-on-tone fabrics that bridged the gap between old and new shapes.

The boldest cuts of all come from London, where Boy George started wearing enormous smocks, tunics and coats quite a while ago.

But for all its apparent comfort, the big shirt is meeting with some resistance.

"Men are very slow in accepting fashion changes," Luciano Franzoni, Hart Schaffner & Marx's design director, explains. "Not until everybody does it is it considered correct."

As for the future of the oversize, Forrest predicts that by next year it will have hit the mass market. "It will be watered down so that even the most conservative man will wear it. And he'll never recognize that the look was influenced by Japanese fashion or Boy George."

For now, the oversize overshirt is likely to be an after-hours look, especially for fashion plates in their 50s, 40s or 30s.

Franzoni explains: "I can't think of a corporation in America that would accept a big shirt, worn flapping in the breeze outside a pair of pants, as right for the office. I don't care how elegant or avant-garde it may look."

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