To decide upon the perfect winter shirt, one must first decide on the perfect winter. To borrow from (and slightly twist) Tolstoy, all miserable winters are more or less the same, but almost every perfect winter is different.
Is the perfect winter spent in Alpine sun on the terrace of the Corviglia Club in St Moritz or the Eagle Club Gstaad? Or in the frost-dusted majesty of rural England, where stout brogues carry the wearer across icy landscapes to a warming drink by a roaring fire? Or could it be in the US, say, living the rugged life of a frontiersman in a cabin in New England?
The true purpose of winter, perfect or otherwise, is to permit a winter wardrobe. My first adult forays into winter shirting were at Budd in Piccadilly Arcade 30 years ago, when, as a bumptious youth, I bounded across the threshold – the very same over which I now totter as a bumptious middle-aged man. Budd has remained largely unscathed by the 21st century: Mr Butcher still cuts the shirts and Mr Rowley still cracks the jokes, but the winter cloths are rather ritzier than in the past. I have a number of brushed-cotton Budds (from £145) in bright colours – the canary one brightens up a three-piece herringbone suit Rubinacci made for me and has been warm enough to wear on the terrace of the Eagle Club without a coat. I also still have two wool/cotton Bengal-striped shirts, made for me in the early 1990s. Even then, these were considered a bit old-fashioned (old-fashioned often equates to perfect in my thesaurus), which I put down to the slightly abrasive handle and weight. This fabric, a favourite of Lord Moyne, even had an old-fashioned warmth – the sort you might encounter during a teatime tutorial in AL Rowse’s rooms, with the doors and windows firmly shut and flames dancing in the hearth. Alas, the fabric is long gone, but in its place is a dazzling array of cashmere/cotton mixes (from £275) that more than compensate.
Speaking of cashmere/cotton mixes, it is impossible not to invoke the name of the queen of cashmerello Emma Willis. Together we have created a near-perfect cashmerello shooting shirt (£410), with an internal pocket into which two recoil pads can be slotted. I am a total sissy when it comes to discharging a firearm and, short of someone experiencing the recoil on my behalf, this is the most elegant solution to the problem of shoulder bruising.
I am by no means a countryman and Emma understands this, so it is all pretty colours and pastels rather than the sludgy stuff. Although she numbers much of what used to be called the landed gentry and a handful of dukes among her clients – I once met the late (and incredibly stylish) Duke of Beaufort in her shop and was amused when the sales assistant yelled that there was a Mr Beaufort to see her – she aims at the more fashion-forward landowner. So while solid colours and pastels are on show, the Tattersall checks are only available under the counter. And she now even does collarless cashmerellos (£310) for the creative crowd.
Having had to wear collarless shirts at school, I am slightly ambivalent towards them. But had those collarless shirts been more like the ones you can find in the West End today, I would have been marginally less miserable and quite a bit warmer than I was. Audie Charles over at Anderson & Sheppard has also embraced the collarless look for winter by channelling Thomas Hardy for some period rustic spin. Unbuttoning to halfway down the sternum, the shirt (from £325) gathers in a series of pleats. It is a harvest festival of a garment to be worn with ears of corn and wheat ’twixt the lips in tribute to yokel deluxe chic.
It would be taking things too far to talk of the return of the smock, but the informal A&S Thomas Hardy spec is proud of its pastoral inspiration. Across the Atlantic, checked flannel has the same spirit, albeit with an American accent (although I have to admit that my very best flannel shirt, from £315, was made for me by Charvet with a spearpoint collar, while currently, Holland & Holland has a superb checked overshirt, £550, that is warm, light, soft, and ideally suited to urban lumberjacking.)
As a people, Americans have mastered informal winter overshirts like no other. I have a fair few of the American backwoodsman garment par excellence – perfect for driving my pickup truck around west London – in sizes sufficient to wear over the kind of extremely heavy knitwear Brian Blessed might favour during one of his attempts on Mount Everest.
But if I am a pretty useless countryman, I am a downright lousy backwoodsman. At times I wander around Shepherd’s Bush looking like an urban lumberjack in search of a forest to hew down, wearing full LL Bean gear: boots, undershirt, shirt, chamois shirt (from £44, buy it huge, then shrink it until it is like a dense moleskin) and checked Maine Guide overshirt (£107), but only a maniac would give me control of an axe.
However, Europe has the edge when it comes to plutocratic overshirts. Loro Piana has managed to double down on the luxury with a blend of vicuña and baby cashmere (£9,005). Think of it as you would a platinum and white-gold watch – it looks under‑the-radar but is, in fact, discreetly, totally over the top. I want one very badly, as it is, I imagine, perfect for sipping hot chocolate and inhaling the crystalline air of St Moritz or Gstaad. It might even brighten the gloom of my semi-hibernation in Shepherd’s Bush, where I huddle like a peasant in a 16th-century Bruegel landscape until after the spring equinox.