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March 21: Elliot Gant and the Button-Down Shirt

Lawrence Bush
March 20, 2017
Elliot Gant (Gantmacher), who with his brother Martin and father Bernard perfected the button-down shirt, added a hook to its back for hanging, and turned it into an “Ivy League” fashion staple, was born in Brooklyn on this date in 1926. Their father was a tailor who specialized in collars, his mother a seamstress who specialized in buttons and buttonholes. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Gant helped establish his father’s brand of Gant Shirts and began advertising in the New Yorker as shirtmakers to the Ivy League (the company was adjacent to Yale University in New Haven). The Gants introduced Madras and striped patterns, as well as “the box pleat in the back to allow more freedom of movement, the extra button in the back of the collar to keep the tie in place, and the patented button tab that connects beneath the necktie to push the knot up and out,” according to Sam Roberts in the New York Times. Gant’s button-down shirts became so popular, “as much a uniform of the day as the proverbial gray flannel suit, that the comedian Bob Newhart was riffing on Madison Avenue’s ‘button-down mind.’ ” Van Heusen acquired the brand in 1995 and then sold it to a Swedish company. According to the Rank a Brand website, the company today ranks a “do not buy” rating (as does Benetton, Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, and numerous other fashion companies) for its lack of sustainable environmental and labor practices. “Elliot Gant’s marketing and fashion philosophies were consistent: Leave some room to maneuver within the boundaries of good taste. ‘Let’s not try to be everything to everybody,’ he said. ‘We’re individuals. When you think for yourself you can be tastefully different.’ ” --Sam Roberts

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.