All hail the mandarin collar

The mandarin collar proves that simplicity really is the ultimate form of sophistication. It is to men’s fashion what Hemingway’s prose is to literature: lean, spare, lethally efficient. And it boasts a long, distinguished history that stretches back centuries to Imperial China.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in an ashram.
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in an ashram. Credit: Dinodia Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

James Bond, watch your back. There’s a new super spy out to get you. His name is Argylle, Aubrey Argylle.

Henry Cavill stars as Agent Argylle in a $200 million blockbuster which came out on 2 February. It’s being touted as the next big spy franchise; comparisons with Bond abound in the media. Director Matthew Vaughn cast Cavill as Argylle because, he said: ‘I needed someone who was born to play Bond – which Henry is – and then nick him before Bond did.’

It remains to be seen whether Argylle will prove more popular than 007, but there is one way in which he already outclasses him: his fashion sense. Argylle’s signature attire is a blazer with a mandarin collar – a short, stiff standup collar. It is clean, sleek, understated.

Contrast that with Bond’s panoply of tuxes and suits – two-piece suits with two buttons, two-piece suits with three buttons, and three-piece suits – endlessly accessorised with plain ties and silk ties and patterned ties and knitted ties and short ties and tie clips. The fictional spy might be hailed as a fashion icon, the awful truth is that he tries way too hard to be classy. His whole wardrobe smacks of imposter syndrome. It’s like Bond has a chip on his bulky shoulder.

With his minimalist blazer, however, Argylle epitomises self-confidence. The mandarin collar is what seals the deal. Because ties cannot be worn with it and the chest is covered, there’s just a lot less going on. A mandarin collared jacket has fewer lines than a regular blazer, which makes it easier on the eyes and cuts a fine silhouette. It projects power and swagger because, unlike Bond’s attires, it doesn’t try to dazzle. As Ralph Ellison wrote in Invisible Man: ‘Power doesn’t have to show off. Power is confident, self-assuring, self-starting and self-stopping, self-warming and self-justifying. When you have it, you know it.’

The mandarin collar proves that simplicity really is the ultimate form of sophistication. It’s to men’s fashion what Hemingway’s prose is to literature: lean, spare, lethally efficient. And it boasts a long, distinguished history that stretches back centuries to Imperial China.

Public officials there – known as mandarins – wore tunics with standup collars. In Europe, to the extent it existed, the standup collar was synonymous with commoners. High fashion was all about neckties. Louis XIV, the ostentatious king of France, rocked so many neckties that he made them trendy across the continent. Today, as a result of Louis’ questionable taste, we still hang pieces of cloth around our necks and associate the look with formality and authority. It is for this reason that most male political leaders instinctively suit up.

Some have recognised the simple power of the mandarin collar. The most stylish: Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, sported a long, fitted vest with a mandarin collar in all circumstances. (Hence why the mandarin collar is sometimes called the Nehru collar.) It was inspired by the achkan, historically the garb of Indian nobles.

In 2012, Time magazine ranked Nehru’s signature look in the ‘Top 10 Global Political Fashion Statements’. It was the sartorial embodiment of Nehru’s doctrine of non-alignment: in matters of both fashion and foreign policy, the Indian leader would kowtow neither to the Western Bloc nor to the Communist Bloc but instead go his own way. No wonder, then, that Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India, has kept up the style and dresses in sleeveless vests with mandarin collars.

Another leader who donned the mandarin collar was Rafael Correa, the former president of Ecuador. He wore crisp cotton shirts with a standup collar at official events and on foreign visits. They became a ‘symbol of his presidency’, according to researchers. In a colourful twist, traditional Ecuadorian symbols were embroidered on the shirts.

French president Emmanuel Macron usually sticks to dark blue suits, but he’s been known to experiment with his wardrobe. On a visit to Egypt in 2019, he was photographed in a mandarin collared shirt – or chemise col Mao, as the French say. Ironically, Mao Zedong didn’t wear mandarin collars. His go-to grey suits had a folded collar.

As it happens, the mandarin collar is most closely associated in the public mind with Bond villains. Take 007’s very first nemesis: Dr No, from 1962’s eponymous film, who wore tailored jackets with mandarin collars. It set the standard for Bond villains, and also influenced Dr Evil’s tunic in Austin Powers. As British GQ put it, ‘the Nehru uniform became cinematic shorthand for all pieces of shit.’

Mercifully that’s changing, and not just thanks to Argylle. Credit should also go to Adolfo Dominguez, a Spanish designer who has been into the mandarin collar for decades. Known for his minimalist approach, Dominguez’s collections have long showcased ‘quiet elegance’.

In recent years, haute couture has finally caught up with Dominguez and begun embracing the aesthetic possibilities of the mandarin collar. (One last word on terminology: fashionistas call the mandarin collar the officer collar, or col officier, since it was part of the uniform of French military officers in the 19th century.)

Under British designer Kim Jones, Dior Homme has produced shirts and jackets with it. Jones’ collaboration with rapper Travis Scott – Dior X Cactus Jack – spawned an array of snazzy, brightly-coloured mandarin collared jackets. And Pharrell Williams, who took over as the Men’s creative director at Louis Vuitton last year, has made the collar one of his ‘signatures’.

Earlier this month, actor Colman Domingo turned heads at the Golden Globes when he donned a mandarin-collared jacket custom made by Louis Vuitton. Commenting on the look, Domingo said, ‘We’re doing very elegant, clean lines… I want to be seen in the room, but I want to be seen in a very statuesque, strong, leading man frame.’

Domingo gets it. I nominate him to be the next James Bond.


Theo Zenou