Although many of the trends to emerge from Fashion Month’s AW20 offering have fallen flat this year – leather trousers while WFH, anyone? – there is one that feels particularly pertinent: the flannel shirt. From Burberry to Chloé via Victoria Beckham and Gucci, AW20’s catwalks were loaded with plaid button-downs. Natacha Ramsay-Levi and Beckham opted for prim and proper slim-cut styles while Alessandro Michele went oversized and apathetic, returning to the laid-back informality forged by the ‘90s grunge scene.
Appetite for the flannel shirt can be found off the catwalks, too: as fashion platform Lyst reports a 48% increase in search, Off-White’s boxy take has been a repeat sell-out while Katie Holmes caused a further 20% spike in searches when she donned a green and blue number to do her grocery shopping in August. More recently, Brad Pitt’s ode to Kurt Cobain – complete with shaggy blonde hair, flannel shirt layered over a white long-sleeved top, and ‘90s jeans – sent the internet wild. Of course, a flannel shirt is never far from fashion’s gaze, dropping in and out of favour since the mid 1800s, but why, in 2020, does it cut such a fine figure?
The shirt itself is a contradiction, at once an icon of fashion history and an everyday wardrobe staple; it represents both traditional heritage and countercultural rebellion, too. In its first iteration, it was designed as a warm, hardwearing staple for workers in Welsh and American textile mills but was crystallised in our collective consciousness as the lumberjack uniform thanks to folklore legend Paul Bunyan, a mythical frontiersman who symbolised American and Canadian strength, prosperity and work ethic. Popular with children and adults alike, Bunyan’s flannel shirt came to represent masculinity in its most traditional form and by the 1940s, all-American brands like Carhartt and Pendleton had men of all classes and professions wearing the checked shirt at weekends.
Fast-forward to 2020 and the folksy aesthetic is back and stronger than ever. Over the past few seasons we’ve embraced heritage labels, donned hiking boots and sought weatherproof practicality from our wardrobes – the flannel’s return is an obvious extension of this trend. "From a trend point of view, the shirt goes hand in hand with the Great Outdoors look that continues to gain traction as we long for nature and wilderness," says Sara Maggioni, head of womenswear at trend forecaster WGSN. This style has only been compounded by lockdown’s government-sanctioned walks and staycations, as Libby Page, Net-A-Porter’s senior market editor, points out: "As country retreats became this summer’s most popular form of escape, women’s wardrobes moved this way too. The flannel now takes on many forms and styles, too, be it a shacket, jacket or overshirt."
Though the lumberjack look has a part to play in the reappearance of the flannel shirt, grunge’s reactionary appropriation of the item deserves credit, too. Holding two fingers up to the man, Seattle’s grunge scene sought to rip apart the American ideal of rural masculinity via apathy and indifference. Cobain and co. weren't the first to subvert the flannel shirt – Marilyn Monroe and The Dukes of Hazzard’s Daisy imbued the button-down with a kind of hard-knock sex appeal in the 1940s and ‘70s respectively – but they took the sartorial symbol of muscle-laden American labour and tore it to shreds. Worn oversized and unbuttoned over long-sleeved tees, ripped jeans and skate shoes, gone were the connotations of a hypermasculine workforce; instead, through a haze of smoke and to the sound of scuzzy guitar riffs, the slacker emerged.
The ‘90s revival has been going strong for what seems like forever now but thanks to Instagram accounts circulating throwback photos of Marc Jacobs’ iconic Perry Ellis SS93 collection and stills of a po-faced Claire Danes in My So-Called Life, a new generation has fallen for the era’s style, flannel shirt included. Just see Bella Hadid at a BRIT Awards afterparty in February, wearing a worn flannel shirt with baggy jeans and a leather jacket, or street stylers at Fashion Month in New York and Tokyo wearing the checked button-up in a plethora of ways. Grungers weren't the only ones to champion the shirt back in the ‘90s – Ice Cube wore a black and white checked shacket in his ‘92 music video for "It Was A Good Day", inspiring legions of hip-hop fans to layer flannel shirts over hoodies and tees – but the despondency of the slacker scene certainly feels recognisable in 2020. Faced with a global pandemic, political turbulence and an oncoming double-dip recession, lethargy, detachment and stoicism are understandable – why not wear the shirt to match?
We always look to the (rose-tinted) past for comfort during times of strife and there cannot be many other wardrobe mainstays permeated with such nostalgia and familiarity. "The flannel shirt has gone through so many iterations in its lifetime and gained a lot of different meanings, so it definitely carries a sense of resilience, versatility, transformation – it has stood the test of time," says Maggioni. "It is also tried and tested, and we know that when we go through uncertain times, we often tend to go back to what we know." Beyond its aesthetic appeal, then, there are more obvious reasons for the flannel shirt’s return to the limelight this year.
The sheer comfort of a flannel shirt cannot be underestimated in the hierarchy of WFH attire. "The line between work and leisure is increasingly blurred: items with indoor-outdoor versatility, that have a timeless quality and that are 'presentable' enough for work meetings while retaining comfort," are key, Maggioni points out. Much like other hardworking materials such as denim and leather, the more a flannel shirt is worn and washed, the better – softer, more comforting – it becomes. (As a historical aside, herein lies the failure of the 2010 era of the checked shirt: as normcore went mainstream and alternative fashion became ubiquitous, the flannel evolved from hipster homage to heritage to the shop floor of every Topman and H&M on the high street. The silhouette became more fitted, the colours more saturated, and the checked button-up grew synonymous with smart shirts for a lads’ night out at Oceana, losing its indifference and countercultural appeal.) In fact, it’s one of the best items to buy secondhand, so of course it's being revisited at a time when sustainability is an immense priority. It’s affordable, too – a key factor in an item’s appeal, particularly amid growing financial concerns – and, having shaken off all gendered connotations, is an item that works, quite literally, for everybody.
As Maggioni says, the flannel’s enduring appeal lies in its contradictions. "It’s so successful, so familiar, so banal, yet so iconic – it’s one of those everyday items that has the potential to perfectly capture and exemplify the zeitgeist of a certain time." And so it goes, from all-American lumberjacks to Seattle slackers and now to us lockdown loungers. By all means, borrow your brother's, pinch from your friends or pick one up at a charity shop; no doubt you already have one in your wardrobe, though – just one more reason why it’s 2020’s unsung hero.