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Under the CPO – The Quintessential Shirt Jacket

Even though it was initially issued to U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officers, there’s nothing petty about the CPO shirt. It’s a cold-weather classic crafted from thick wool, designed to be a layer of armor for officers on cold-weather work duty in the 1930s. Like many utilitarian garments, the CPO shirt has transcended its military roots and earned its place in contemporary wardrobes.

A timelessly rugged staple, the CPO is has seen a healthy resurgence in the last ten years or so.  Today, we’re shining a light on the CPO, taking a look at its rich history and some of the best CPOs on the market today.

What is a CPO Shirt?

Under-the-CPO---The-Quintessential-Shirt-Jacket Image via Epochs

Steve McQueen in a CPO shirt.

The CPO shirt is a heavyweight wool overshirt. An archetypal CPO shirt is navy in color and has either one or two flap-closure patch chest pockets. Original 1930s issue CPO shirts feature a singular chest pocket with a scalloped flap. Robust, tonal buttons run down the main placket, cuffs, and pockets, and these buttons often feature an embossed anchor representing the shirt’s nautical heritage.

Some modern-day renditions of the CPO shirt may differ from the blueprint set out by the original 1930s versions, but you can always look to brands like Buzz Rickson’s or The Real McCoy’s for a meticulous, period-accurate reproduction.

History of the CPO Shirt

Under-the-CPO---The-Quintessential-Shirt-Jacket Richard Widmark in a CPO shirt in Down to the Sea in Ships, 1949. Image via Classic Sailor

Richard Widmark in a CPO shirt in the 1949 film Down to the Sea in Ships. Image via Classic Sailor

The CPO shirt was introduced to the U.S. Navy in the 1930s, initially assigned to Chief Petty Officers (CPOs). Cut from a warm, robust, navy wool flannel, the CPO had a roomy fit that allowed officers to wear it over their chunky knits as an outerwear piece. The shirt was eventually worn by standard naval officers and was favored by sailors for its cozy, hard-wearing material.

The warm, robust, and comfortable CPO shirt was a perfect piece of utilitarian outerwear and it was issued in scores throughout World War II. So perfect, that discharged naval officers continued to wear their CPO shirts after they were discharged from service, which introduced the piece to the civilian population of the United States. Readily available in Army/Navy surplus stores, it didn’t take long for the CPO shirt to become a civilian favorite.

Under-the-CPO---The-Quintessential-Shirt-Jacket-Images-via-Us-Militia-Uniform

Images via US Militia Uniform

The popularity of the CPO shirt grew in the post-war decades, peaking in the 60s and 70s. During these eras, the CPO shirt was a menswear staple, although it was typically the later ‘jacket’ version with two square-edged flap pockets, not the original issue one-pocket model.

In the States, the CPO was even sold by such big-name American retailers as Sears and Roebuck, J. C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward. Big retailers offered CPO-style shirts in multiple colors, even various plaids and jacquard patterns. Though some mid-century renditions of the CPO shirt were a farcry from their military ancestors in terms of style and construction, there’s no questioning the tangible influence that the CPO shirt has had on the world of men’s fashion.

CPO Shirts On The Market Today

Buzz Rickson’s U.S. Navy 1st-Model CPO Shirt

Under the CPO - The Quintessential Shirt Jacket black

Buzz Rickson’s U.S. Navy 1st-Model CPO Shirt is based on the first CPO shirt pattern, most observable by the singular chest pocket (as opposed to the more common double chest pockets) and pointed collar. Everything about this shirt is done to be historically accurate — the fabrics and buttons used are all custom reproductions, and even the contours of the front pocket flap were taken into account when patterning.

Cut from a heavyweight woolen flannel, this CPO shirt from Buzz Rickson’s is extremely stiff to begin with, softening over time with each wear. Coming in a very dark shade of navy, this piece of naval armor will more than likely outlive you, gaining some handsome patina on the way.

Available for $195 from History Preservation.

Schott CPO Wool Shirt

Under-the-CPO---The-Quintessential-Shirt-Jacket-blue

Schott produces a fundamental modern CPO shirt in a variety of colors based on the later, two-pocket CPO shirts which became so popular in the 60s and 70s. This piece is built from a heavyweight 20 oz. wool/polyester blend cloth and cut with a round hem. Schott has also included the archetypal anchor-embossed buttons on all closures.

Available from Stag Provisions for $120

Freewheelers “Weather Paraffin” C.P.O Shirt

Under-the-CPO---The-Quintessential-Shirt-Jacket-model-blue

Doing things slightly differently here, Freewheeler’s CPO shirt is reimagined in wax-treated cotton twill. This charming piece is constructed from a dense twill woven on vintage looms. This fabric is then overdyed with indigo, and treated with paraffin wax to make it water-resistant. Staying true in some ways to the 1930s CPO pattern, Freewheelers has built this shirt with the singular chest pocket–complete with scalloped flap closure–and included the original anchor-embossed buttons.

Each piece is made in Japan using chainstitch construction, and one-washed to alleviate shrinkage.

Available from Corlection for $360 AUD ($260 USD)