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Dictating a memoir he could not write, Barry Boonshaft sat in his Upper East Side apartment, all alone save for the dog that lolled nearby. Over the course of the afternoon, in the winter of 2015, he spoke into a microphone connected to his computer; when he was finished, he printed out 150 single-spaced pages and decided on a title: The Man Who Changed the Way Men Dress. It was a grand pronouncement from someone with nothing left to lose.
Boonshaft, 88, with a crop of salt-and-pepper hair and a cutting tenor, credits himself with suffusing men’s fashion with color at a time when white shirts were the standard. He says he helped make color dress shirts a staple of everyday living, putting the flash of the counterculture inside the mainstream.
As Boonshaft tells it, in 1967, when gainfully employed men didn’t stray from white oxford button-ups, he introduced a line of colors both modest and gaudy: lavender, auburn, pink, fuchsia. Soon after, the popularity of solid- and multicolor patterns took off — but left him behind. Too overcome with sales orders for Boonshaft Inc. colored shirts, and later busied by an upstart apparel company called Nik Nik (known for its stretchy nylon disco-era garb), Boonshaft hasn’t sought recognition until now.
The significance of this quest brings to light a very specific, often ignored existential dread: When we are gone, who will remember us? Will anyone tell the story we lived?
Vintage shirts for sale online are emblazoned with his name alongside that of Oleg Cassini, the legendary designer and dressmaker for Jackie Kennedy. A compelling argument can be made for Boonshaft, though, in some cases, it rests with the dead. Many of his longtime friends have passed away: Larry Phillips, the clothier; Herbert R. Aronson, president and CEO of Manhattan Menswear; and the winsome fashion trade paper columnist Stanley Gellers. Even Boonshaft’s black Bouvier des Flandres, Kelsey, was put to sleep last year.
He lives with his wife of forty-two years, Cydonia, in the UES apartment where he spends much of his time after years of business and personal travel abroad. The high-rise’s windows look out onto the Queensboro Bridge, a solemn view of the East River ebbing slowly out to sea. The space inside has become something of a gallery — with works by Jim Dine, Luis Sanguino, and Rainer Fetting — harking back to the time Boonshaft spent as an antiques dealer after forty years in the turbulent world of fashion.
Asked whether his claim might seem outlandish, Boonshaft guffawed. “Obviously,” he said. “Changing the way men dress is a huge…” and nothing more. News clippings and advertisements from the New York Times and an article in GQ from the 1960s bear Boonshaft’s name, but there seems to be no watershed moment in the annals of fashion where the tributaries of color and grayscale converged.
Boonshaft, though, believes his story is enough.
As a young man working at a shirt factory outside Philadelphia, Boonshaft used to fly down Route 309 dodging speed traps. When stopped by the state police, he’d make a joke: “Look, OK, you’ve won two shirts.” It was the early 1940s, and after his first ticket, he never again paid in cash.
He’d worked in the fashion industry as a teenager, he told me, and then later for his father-in-law, who operated a shirt factory. He started out working in the cutting room and ironing shirts eight hours each day.
Soon he took on more responsibilities. “I dealt with the union in the factory and then spent quite a few years managing that and contractors and in the 1950s started to travel to New York to learn the other phases of the shirt business,” Boonshaft said. In the 1950s, shortly before leaving his first wife, he helped his father-in-law’s factory merge with Eagle Shirtmakers.
He wanted to go it alone and had a radical idea on which to build a shirt company, called Boonshaft Inc.: men’s dress shirts in different colors, then a sweeping departure. Boonshaft approached Cassini to license the Italian fashion designer’s name for a line of clothing. (Cassini’s autobiographies mention Boonshaft only briefly, attributing nothing about the idea to him.) Suppliers, though, believed him to be a fool even if he was aligned with Cassini. They told him that no one wanted colored dress shirts. Such superlatives were for sportswear. Another decade reached its end.
It took until September of 1967, but Boonshaft finally got his shirts. At a trade show at the New York Coliseum, Boonshaft displayed them and sold out of everything, he says. The shirts were a hit. Within one season, he told me, his contemporaries at Phillips–Van Heusen, Weber & Heilbroner, and other menswear companies began selling colorful dress shirts. He was forgotten, stampeded, seemingly overnight.
“I couldn’t copyright it — it was only a solid color,” Boonshaft said.
He added, “It was disheartening to know that I wasn’t being rewarded for this in any other way.”
Boonshaft “was a very important man in the fashion industry,” said Milt Kaplan, a longtime friend and once the fashion advertising manager of Playboy and Esquire. Kaplan said he knew why Boonshaft would claim he changed the way men dress. “If designing dress shirts changes the way men fashion themselves, then he certainly [did]. You could make that claim, I guess, for a lot of people, Ralph Lauren being one of them,” Kaplan said.
An assistant professor of menswear at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Mark-Evan Blackman, said that he knew Boonshaft as a designer of menswear but that history didn’t exactly support his claim. Colorful dress shirts had been part of the teddy-boy style of 1950s England, Blackman noted, and had existed since at least the 1920s. (You can find a mention in The Great Gatsby: “While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue.”)
Boonshaft left the fashion industry in 1985 for the antiques business, spending ten years in trading and reproduction, and later traveled, with friends and his second wife, “everywhere in the world that we ever wanted to visit,” including Japan, China, Mexico, Egypt, and across Europe. It would have been a splendid retirement were it not for the itch of notoriety he couldn’t satisfy.
In his lavishly adorned apartment, he told me he felt a sort of desperation to get his name on the books — for the sake of history, not money. When I asked him to explain more clearly why he never received due credit, he elided key snippets of his life with, “I never thought much about notoriety. I was happy to have a successful company. The only reason I thought about notoriety was when you read my memoir.”
Perhaps he took my curiosity as validation. His desire for credit had long lain dormant, and I thought of the last line of his memoir: I’m sort of lonesome and trying to make the best of what remains of my life, but still appreciative of everything that I have and had.
To listen more closely, I put down my notepad, turned off my recorder, and stayed a little while longer.