The rise of the heritage trend in the menswear industry over the past few years has been documented at length and can be seen on just about every street corner — raw denim, faded tees, camouflage and military-inspired garb have become the norm for many. At the forefront of the “heritage revival” has been the reintroduction of chambray as a staple fabric. Beloved for its denim-like look in a lightweight, breathable form, chambray has graced everything from shirting, outerwear and trousers to accessories like handkerchiefs, pocket squares, scarves and ties – even footwear. The recent surge in the fabric’s popularity can likely be traced back to its very roots.
Originating in 16th century Cambrai near the Belgian border, chambray basically exists as a lightweight alternative to southern France’s denim. While both fabrics are typically constructed using a white weft and colored — typically blue — warp, denim sees the weft passed under two or more warp threads. Chambray, on the other hand, features a 1 x 1 fabric structure as the warp and weft cross equally. As such, finished denim features a “right” and “wrong” side with the exterior fabric exhibiting most of the warp’s thread while the interior appears predominately white with the weft. The result is a softer, more versatile fabric fit for countless applications.
While denim is typically relegated to jeans, work shirts and outerwear, chambray has been employed on a much larger scale over the centuries. Upon introduction, it became the preferred ecclesiastical wear for the likes of bishops and clergymen thanks to its lightweight, breathable qualities. For the same reasons, the French found that the fabric could be applied to anything that typically utilized linen, thus resulting in chambray bedding, tablecloths, handkerchiefs, and even infant wear and undergarments. Although not quite as strong as denim, chambray’s structure allows for a ruggedness that falls somewhere between that of denim and linen. As a result, linen shirting of the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries can often be seen with chambray collars, cuffs and frills for added durability.
These rugged qualities are what led to chambray’s adoption by the U.S. military at the turn of the 20th century. Changes to U.S. Navy regulations in 1901 authorized the issue of chambray shirts and denim trousers while another change in 1914 extended the outfit to both officers and enlisted sailors – a look that endured through World War II and was donned primarily as a utility uniform.
Fast forward to present and chambray can be found at the forefront of just about every heritage-inspired line on the market. Thanks to its military heritage, versatility and lightweight yet rugged qualities, the fabric is a hallmark of both spring/summer and fall/winter collection, appearing predominately on shirting from the likes of WTAPS, A Bathing Ape, OriginalFake, Chimala, NEIGHBORHOOD, Supreme, J.Crew and more. Brands like Converse, Vans and Nike have all applied chambray to iconic footwear silhouettes like the Chuck Taylor All Star, Era, Half Cab and Air Force 1 while the fabric has been adopted for outerwear designs from Wings + Horns, Woolrich, Opening Ceremony and Levi’s. Others like Apolis Activism have produced chambray swim trunks while labels like Maiden Noir have introduced bandanas and countless other accessories including bags, caps, scarves, pocket squares – the list goes on. Present day also sees many labels experimenting with various colorways of the chambray textile.
If trends for Spring/Summer 2013 are any indication, chambray will continue to make its mark on menswear for seasons to come – upcoming collections from J.Crew, White Mountaineering, Ovadia & Sons, J. Press, Mark McNairy and FACTOTUM all feature chambray pieces.