Menswear Staples: The Pendleton Shirt

After a long day at the beach, or strutting round town, you'll need something to keep out the chill. What better than the Beach Boys' favourite, the Pendleton Shirt.
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After a long day at the beach, or strutting round town, you'll need something to keep out the chill. What better than the Beach Boys' favourite, the Pendleton Shirt.

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To me, there is only one check shirt worth wearing. The Pendleton Board shirt. What some refer to as a lumberjack shirt was, in fact, made popular in southern California in the early 1960s by surfers. Used as an easy warm après-surf pull-on, and ideal for evening beach parties, the board shirt was more often paired with shorts and huarache sandals than jeans and workboots.  The Beach Boys were known as The Pendletones before taking on their more obvious name, and wore the shirts for gigs, copying the South Bay surfer style becoming popular in 1960-61. The group can be seen in Pendleton’s on the cover of The Best of the Beach Boys.

My dad’s friend, a poet-surfer named Dale Herd, used to wear Pendleton’s when we lived in the redwoods in the mid-1970s. I remember him pulling into our remote cabin in his battered red Karmann Ghia (held together with duct tape), surfboard propped on the passenger seat, wearing a brilliant aqua-and-gold board shirt. Perfect for the open-top drive up the coast from foggy San Francisco. I took my lead from him and the Beats, who liked the shirts because they could stick a notebook and pen in the chest pocket, I imagine. I can testify to the quality of the shirts: I have a shirt of my dad’s that dates from 1977. It is still fine, with just a bit of wear on the collar and cuffs.

The plaid work shirt was, of course, first and foremost a work shirt. A young English weaver, Thomas Kay, started Pendelton as a company in 1863. Kay oversaw the weaving operation at a woolen mill in Oregon. Kay’s eldest daughter, Fannie, oversaw the business side of the operation and when she married CP Bishop, a retail merchant, the foundation for what would become Pendleton Woolen Mills was born. The first products the company made were Indian patterned blankets, popular for their vivid colours and intricate patterns. Soon Pendleton moved into the world of men’s work shirts. Worn for warmth and protection these shirts had been drab, utilitarian affairs. In 1924 the legendary Pendleton wool men’s shirt was born, with the check patterns coming in a huge range of shades and colour combinations. Small changes have been made over the years: a lining has been added in the yoke and collar, for instance, but the shirt remains much as it was 100 years ago. The Bishop family still run the firm over 140 years since its launch.

The Pendleton has become iconic: beloved by the Beats, Neil Young and later the grunge scene, the Board short also never fell out of favour with surfers. Los Angeles street gangs adopted it in the 1970s: bloods wearing red biased numbers, and Crips blue. Gang-bangers wear their board shirts with just the top button fastened, the rest hanging open over a white vest. Which brings me to the detail of the shirt.

Starting with that top button. The buttonhole for the top button is in fact just a loop: a small cotton loop that is one of the standout details that will make you love Pendleton’s. The rest of the buttonholes are also unique: horizontal holes, never vertical. The pockets are important: the board shirt, unlike other Pendleton shirts, has flaps on both chest pockets. These are bias cut, which adds to the appeal of the look. The bottom of the shirt is square cut and I would always wear the thing untucked. And they are not a winter shirts: these shirts are midweight wool, perfect for slightly nippy summer evenings. Evenings, indeed, spent on the beach.

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Photography by Greenspan's, South Gate, California, www.greenspans.com, by Josh Greenspan


Pendleton Board Shirts are quite hard to track down in the UK:

End Clothing sometimes stock them to go to their site click here.

If you have a US address (they don’t ship to the UK) you can click here.

For more from Ben Raworth click here.