Most men have a favourite shirt, the one they go to when they aren’t sure what to wear. It may be a dress shirt or a casual shirt and they may not know which it is. So what are the differences between dress and casual shirts?

Dress and casual shirts

The basics
While there are no hard and fast rules, there are some general guidelines to help a man decide if a shirt is casual or dress. These are mostly to do with the elements that make up the shirt. For starters, there is the collar. A classic dress shirt will often have a spread collar. This is where there are more space between the points of the collar to add a tie. Button down collars are popular but these tend to be classed as casual. With collars, a new development is that the contrasting collar is now counted as more formal than a matching one. So if your patterned shirt has a white collar, this is more dress than if it has a patterned collar. Fabric choices are a little vaguer, especially with changing trends. However, patterns are easier to judge. Some understated patterns such as stripes may work for dress shirts but bolder stripes, powerful patterns or Hawaiian shirts very definitely fall into casual. The addition of a pocket to the shirt is a classic casual shirt component but it can feature on dress shirts. These pockets should be small if they are required, though the classic dress shirt lacks a pocket entirely. Similarly, cuffs are dress when they have cufflinks while buttons are casual. But this doesn’t have to be set in stone.

What are sports shirts?
Another term that is often tossed into the mix is sports shirt – but what exactly is that? Basically, the sports shirt is a type of the casual shirt. They tend to be brighter in colour or with bold patterns. Pockets are common along with button down collars on some. Decorative stitching is another feature that is often used on these shirts. Sports shirts tend to have less interfacing on the collar and cuffs. This makes them softer and easier to wear but also mean they don’t work well with ties. And usually these cuffs will have buttons so cufflinks don’t work with them. The material favoured for sports shirts also tends to be more rugged and less fine. Most are still cotton but tend towards the lighter weaves such as chambray or the plain oxford weaves. Plaid shirts are another example of sports shirts. These shirts don’t have the shine that a fine weave dress shirt will have and because of this will tend to be less expensive. 

Casual shirts

So to summarise – if a shirt is fun and funky, it’s a casual shirt. If it is refined, with a delicate weave and plenty of shine to the material, that’s a dress shirt. If you can add a tie and cufflinks, it is likely a dress shirt whereas buttons on collar and cuffs is more likely a casual shirt. Can you categorise the shirts in your wardrobe now based on this?