by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

Wide-eyed newcomers to the mad, mad world of #menswear often ask for clear rules for deciding the quality of a piece of clothing, usually without much success. One easy first step on that sartorial learning curve is that shirts whose collars have stays sewn inside them are invariably low quality. Where that first step can take you, however, is all the way down yet another of the rabbit holes of our particular compulsion. Stays, those slim little objects that are supposed to maintain the shape of a collar, have become object lessons in the tensions of dressing well. A tension, I suppose, that can be expressed as which is worse: too much thought or no thought at all? Those inbuilt stays are a point against the no-thought camp. No doubt intended to relieve wearers from having to remember to insert and remove collar stays, instead these shirts expose the stays to melting and deformation during drying and ironing. If a stay breaks inside one of them, the effect is dire, forcing you to throw out the shirt at the risk of wearing a collar with a displaced fracture (yeah, I had to look that up on WebMD too).

Underthinking versus overthinking: how did we get here?

Collars have been one of the front lines in this endless clothing conflict, even if today the battlefronts are more around whether we can wear men’s yoga pants with a dinner jacket, to judge by today’s men’s magazines. (Thinking about it, I suppose Isle could get away with it, especially if he had Steed make them up in a nice grosgrain-style stretch fabric and kept the one line of braid down the side – I disqualify myself for already absurdly miscegenating my too-rarely worn formal attire.) Less than a century ago most shirt collars were detachable and white, and were worn heavily starched – stiffness literally boiled in. Those who wished to cheap out at the time could buy disposable celluloid collars. In the 1920s and 1930s, a privileged few engaged in what passed for rebellion by wearing collars that were actually part of the shirt they were worn with, and that were soft – not starched to be stiff as a board and hard as a knife.

Despite their softness, those collars still required removable artifice to keep their shape – stays, also called collar bones, whose French name, baleines, recalls the whalebone stays used in old corsets. (Baleine is French for whale or whalebone; interestingly, I remember reading that the ribs of umbrellas also used to be made of whalebone.) You can still get stays in bone, although now they’re in cow bone, from makers like Abbeyhorn. Nonetheless, bone snaps if too much pressure is put on it. And bone stays generally only come in one or two standard lengths, as do stays in other interesting materials like mother-of-pearl.

More durable materials include brass and other metals, but if those bend, they stay bent and don’t flex, and those, too, are only available in standard lengths. Far more compelling are the antique Asprey nine-karat gold collar stays I’ve seen at auction, whose length could be adjusted to fit any collar. They struck just the right note of gadgetry, extravagance and esotericism. How well did they work? Would they bend too? Who knows? There was a thrill in that sort of beautifully finicky excessiveness, the polar opposite of the more recent magnetized collar-securing invention whose creator got laughed off of Shark Tank. Perhaps there is a lesson in that – needless complication is only charming when it is extravagant. If we can’t be that extravagant, then functionalism is the way to go.

No matter what their material, collar stays remain sometimes difficult to remove, especially if as of a bleary-eyed, drowsy morning you pick the wrong length of collar stay and it disappears down the slot in the underside of your collar, never to return. Too long a stay and it’ll poke your neck through the collar, or break if you turn your head. Digging out its jagged end is enough to make even the most blasé of us think of seizing the excuse of #sprezzatura to wear collars without stays at all, which look best when you have a collar that is both well cut and well fitting. That takes luck or a talented shirtmaker who can make a collar that will roll nicely when it has lost its backbone. Still, most of us can’t pull off the degree of pretended insouciance necessary to wear floppy collars every day.

For pure function, plastic can’t be beat: it can be reasonably stiff, but it flexes and can spring back to its original shape, and a good shirtmaker can provide them in many different lengths depending on the collar dimensions of your own shirt. The best I’ve encountered were cut out of thick celluloid specifically for the dimensions of the collars of my shirts, by one of my shirtmakers. There’s always, though, another step up. Long ago a retired shirtmaker I know had shown me “cellulos coudés”, literally “celluloids with elbows”: collar stays that were not only cut to order out of a sheet of thick celluloid, but that were cut in a “J” shape. The J-shape – the elbow in question – helps with removing the stays and ensures that a stay made for a different shape of collar never gets lost inside its stay pocket.

I thought this was an anachronism from times when individual shirtmakers cared more – even some of the most luxurious shirtmakers in the world use normal premade PVC collar stays in the usual oblong shape. Then one of my shirtmakers, the only one who had cut me thick, individually made (but straight) celluloid stays for my collars, delivered my first new order after an absence of years with hooked stays. And I, in turn, was hooked. That minor pleasure required no extra thought on my part, just the care of my shirtmaker and the attention to detail of his workrooms. Of course, now that I had them, I didn’t want to give them up, stipulating them on each new order in order not to lose by inattention what I had gained without even asking. I didn’t want to lose the pleasure of peace of mind. Excess thought prevails in me, despite my better knowledge – that’s why I write about this stuff.

Just as with stays in far more expensive materials, no one will know you’re wearing them. But if you can find a shirtmaker who’ll supply them, your collars will stay perfect.