Mini Object Lesson: Fishing Shirt

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Fishing shirts are not just for fishing anymore. Or perhaps they never were. They are a modification of the travel shirt, a many-pocketed button-down shirt that looks vaguely like a Oxford-cloth business casual staple, until you get up close—then you see the details: vents, mesh underlayers, patch pockets with accordion folds and pleats, key loops, utility tabs, expandable collars for sun protection … the list goes on.

What do these shirts offer, whence their popularity, beyond the conceit of actual fishing?

Look around next time you travel, and observe the drab drapings of these high-tech shirts as they make contact with plastic seats and press against plate glass windows. And then consider how these shirts are robustly described by their purveyors:

The Columbia PFG (Performance Fishing Gear) “Tamiami II,” perhaps the most ubiquitous and eerily identifiable fishing shirt, offers a “Modern Classic fit” and is “designed for cool comfort and functionality over the long haul.” The “cool” does double duty here, assuring us that we will look fashionable while also evincing the functional venting technology of this shirt. No wonder it is called a “performance button up,” as it must skate an awkward path between the noble pursuits of modernity and the banal realities of endless office work.

Patagonia’s “Island Hopper II” promises “a superlight long-sleeved shirt in an easy-care, organic cotton, recycled polyester blend.” Consider here the tension between “easy-care” and the implied responsibilities of organic cotton and recycling: environmental consciousness dances on a razor’s edge between calm and crisis.

Meanwhile, ExOfficio’s “Air StripTM Shirt” is marketed as “the ultimate in technical apparel.” At the same time, it assures a “comfortable yet modern silhouette”—by now a familiar formula, this vow to balance utility with elegance.

And isn’t this what is so attractive—and so galling—about the fishing shirt? It pledges to spirit us through the world with foresight, durability, and protection; but it also nestles blandly into the consumerscape numbly taking place all around. It beckons at trout unlimited and adventures untold; and it seamlessly facilitates herds of shuffling travelers and routine labor.

It’s everything about modernity we’d wanted—packaged in all sizes and colors, and made for every occasion. Why teach anyone to fish, when everyone can just wear a fishing shirt?