Words: Haili Hughes
Model: Paul Marland-Griffiths
Photographer: Terry McNamara
Shirts by Shani’s Showroom

In popular culture, there seems to be no decade more iconic than the 1950s. From bobby socks to poodle skirts, it is an era that is instantly recognisable from its fashion choices. One of the reasons why it is so iconic, is the rise of youth culture at the time; with the advent of the teenager and rock ‘n’ roll, there was no cooler time in terms of style.

One of the most enduring and recognisable looks for any cool chap is the bowling shirt. Teamed with a pair of turn-up jeans, baseball boots and a high quiff, the look just screams 50s and is still a go-to-look for any discerning rockabilly today.

Originally made from cotton in earthy tones with simple geometric designs, authentic bowling shirts often mimicked designs of classic Hawaiian shirts in construction and were box-cut with short sleeves, small collars and button-up fronts. They usually consisted of horizontal buttonholes, straight hems and V-neck style cuts. Many had single breast pockets on the left, or were embroidered with initials or other small monograms instead. What distinguishes bowling shirts from their Hawaiian counterparts though is the distinctive use of colour block patterns; where Hawaiian shirts have their intricate tiki designs, bowling shirts are more distinctive and bold, which really gives them that edgy, rockabilly look.

A classic example of a bowling shirt might be a red shirt with a contrasting black front panel or collar. There would be shoulder piping and red sleeves. They tended to be made in bold colours, such as red, blue, black and white.

Of course, the bowling shirt came from purely functional beginnings, as a garment which was worn on the lanes. Although bowling has existed since 5200 B.C. in Egypt (www.bowl.com), it was in the 1950s that bowling was at its peak of popularity, with purpose built alleys springing up in most American towns. As has been shown in so many movies depicting the era, young people used to gather there after school on a Friday night and spend their Saturdays hanging out on the lanes and sipping milkshakes at the adjoining diner. But bowling was not just for the teenagers. In 1958, the Professional Bowlers Association was formed and bowling became a major sport, with mini leagues starting up in almost every local alley and regular bowling nights filling many a suburban dad’s evenings.

While bowling alleys are still popular family entertainment, they have nowhere near the popularity in the UK as they have in the US. So, what still makes the bowling shirt so popular a fashion choice over here?

It must be the edgy, iconic look it gives. You only need watch any movie set in the era to see how cool they are. From ‘Grease 2’ to ‘The Wanderers’ – bowling shirts just embody hip. They are a style that is still inspiring designers today, with many repro brands making more contemporary styles of shirts, including screen-printed backs with skull or flame motifs. There is now a wider range of rock ‘n’ roll style fabrics being used, featuring all kinds of alternative motifs, rather than the traditional two tone colourway. Despite the difference in colour, these designs are still very recognisable and remain a stylish choice for anyone trying to perfect the rockin’ look while being an important part of pop culture history.

Lisa Harrison
Written by Lisa Harrison
Lisa is the Deputy Editor of Vintage Life Magazine and Publisher at Dragoon Publishing. She is avid bookworm, collector of vintage homeware, loves travel, lazy weekends away and eats way too much cake!