For many men, the dress shirt is the most important top in their wardrobe. Whether worn for business, pleasure or a mixture of both, these shirts are the classiest items they own, creating a timeless, smart appearance that works for so many occasions. Often there are a number of these shirts ranging from the ultra-formal to the casual. But how do you know which is best for what? And how do you understand all the elements that go into a dress shirt? Simple – you read our guide!
Dress shirt fit
The first and most important part of the dress shirt is its fit. To have the full desired effect, the shirt must fit correctly. Too loose or to tight and the whole effect is spoiled. There are a number of measurements that go into getting the right dress shirt and these should be re-done periodically to ensure that they are still accurate – time changes our bodies even if we don’t realise it and a little adjustment now and again can ensure the perfect fit.
Start at the top with the collar size. Measuring the collar is a pretty simple task – pop a tape measure around your neck and allow a space of two fingers worth before noting the measurement. If you go tighter than this, you will find the collar uncomfortable, possibly unwearable. You may need to round the figure up to the nearest half-inch as most shops increase in these increments.
Sleeve length is next and should be measured from the point where the shoulder seam would lie, at the end of the shoulder. Measure down from this point to the spot on the wrist where you would want the cuff to sit. Keep your arm loose as if you lift it, you won’t get quite the right measurement.
The cut or fit of the shirt should be influenced by your size and shape. For example, if you are classed as tall then you want a fit that is designed for taller frames. Slim fitting shirts can also work well for the taller man. However, if you are a plus size, then aim for shirts made for your size – but don’t be tempted to go too big on the shirt size as this will simply emphasise your shape, not hide it.
Once you know the size and style of shirt that works best for you, then you can start looking at the shirt fabric. While you can get shirts in manmade fabrics and fancy fabrics such as silk, the vast majority of dress shirts make use of a cotton material. 100% cotton is usually the best and it comes in a number of different weaves. These are important to be familiar with because the resulting shirt is a little different from each.
Oxford fabric is soft and comfortable but also one of the coarser weaves. It is ideal for the button down collar casual shirt and comes in coloured and patterned variations. The weave uses white threads going in one direction and dyed ones going in the other to create the basket weave type look. There are also variations within Oxford such as Royal Oxford, which is a very fine weave and Pinpoint Oxford that is in the middle.
Poplin fabric is a similar weight to Oxford but is a little smoother. It uses one fine yarn going in one direction with a slightly thicker yarn going in the other. It is another great shirt for casual occasions, often available in coloured options and sporty patterns.
Twill fabric is made with a diagonal weave that creates a very rich texture. Herringbone is one variation where the threads switch direction around every quarter of an inch and creates a fabric that has a lot of depth. Twill also comes in solid variations for formal occasions.
Broadcloth fabrics are a more densely packed version of poplin and are the most formal types of cotton weave. They include interweaving threads with alternating colours for a visible texture that is nonetheless very subtle and only visible close up.
As well as these there are a number of other cotton weaves that appear in shirts. These include chambray, end on end, dobby, melange, seersucker, birdseye and more, each with their own specific appearance and benefits.
Shirt collars can be pretty confusing because there are so many of them, all with their own names and sometimes with very little difference between one or another. There are two basic categories of collar that suit different face shapes.
Point collars are the most commonly seen and account for around 90% of all dress shirts on the market. These have collar points that are at an angle of less than 60 degrees and creates a longer looking collar. This style is great for drawing the eye downwards and makes the face seem longer. Therefore, it is ideal for the man with the round face shape, making his face seem more angular.
Spread or cutaway collars are the other main category. These have points that are cut away and allow more of the shirt collar to be exposed. They are typically paired with wider tie knot styles and have angles greater than 90 degrees. In terms of face shape, they are perfect for the medium to long shape face, the slender face as they add a bit of width.
Within these two groups can be an eye-watering number of different substyles. For example, the English spread collar is one that has around 5 inches between the collar points while the Londoner collar has around six inches’ gap. Therefore, once you have selected a group of collars by your face shape, it is simply a case of seeing what you like.
Spread collars can be worn without a tie while point collars can look a little odd. So if you want a shirt to wear with and without a tie, then spread may be the way to go and a medium spread is a safe bet.
Then there are the collars that aren’t quite either of these! One example is the Mandarin collar, which doesn’t turn down. Plus, there are collars that are designed only to wear with ties and have secret features built in to make the tie look at its best – pin and tab collars are good examples of these. They have a tab or a pin that sits under the tie knot to keep everything looking smart.
The final element of the shirt to consider before buying is the cuffs. Once you know the length of sleeve needed, you can look at the options available in your particularly length. Many cuffs use interlining, much in the way that collars do, to make them a little crisper. It will be a light version in a casual shirt and much stiffer in a formal one so don’t be surprised if your new best shirt seems a little still around the wrists.
Button cuffs have a single wrap of material around the wrist which are held in place by a button. They are the most commonly found style of cuffs and can come with one or two buttons. A two button vertical version is often called a barrel cuff and is a more formal variation. Sometimes they also have a small button on the sleeve to prevent the cuff from spilling open at the wrist.
French cuffs are the formal option yet are now often worn for daily wear shirts in some industries. The French cuff is a double length of material that is folded back on itself and fastened into place with a cufflink. The cuff doesn’t work without some form of cufflink and is also a great way for a man to personalise the shirt, adding whatever suits his style.
Choosing colours and patterns
Colours and patterns can sometimes be the most intimidating part of choosing a dress shirt. Part of you wants to go bold, be an individual and choose something you love. Part of you wants to conform to the unofficial dress standard of the occasion. So how do you know what you wear when?
The white shirt is the most common colour and historically was the only choice for a gentleman. It was seen as a sign that the man didn’t do ‘dirty’ work because he could wear a white shirt and it stayed clean – definitely an outdated idea! Yet the white shirt is still seen as the most formal and is the safe bet when you are unsure what colour or pattern is the right choice.
Blue shirts gained popularity in the US and have spread around the world, partly due to their ability to complement a complexion and their ease to wear. There’s nothing too bright or too rebellious about a blue shirt so many men opt for it as a second to white. Pair light blue with a navy suit and a mid-blue tie for a great effect while brown shoes work well with this kind of look.
In recent years, an explosion of colour has been seen in the men’s shirt department as a host of previously taboo colours gained their place. From pinks and lavenders to reds and forest greens, colour is no longer an enemy of the smart man but has its place. As only around one tenth of men have the nerve to go with different colours, it can be a great way to stand out from the crowd and you can choose a colour that suits your complexion. Pale pink, for example is ideal with a navy suit and use brown rather than black shoes to accent the navy.
Solid shirts are the easiest to choose when it comes to patterns because it is a complete lack of pattern! It is often the case that if you are unsure that a pattern is suitable for an occasion, then go for a solid shirt. It is also the best for showing off the fit of the shirt while some weaves of cotton appear solid then have a very subtle natural pattern close up.
Stripes can work for some men but for others they are a no-go area. Accent colours such as reds or pinks can give you colour if you are a little pale and stripes work really well with solid coloured suits. If you are a plus size, consider avoiding horizontal stripes and instead going with vertical to draw the eye down while if you are tall and slender, go horizontal to add a little optical width.
Check shirts were once in the realm of the work or casual shirt rather than to pair with formal trousers or a suit. But today, subtle check patterns can work well with a solid suit but remember not to mix patterns as it drives the eye a little crazy trying to keep track of them all.
Finishing touches to your outfit are the little things that show you really care about your appearance. One of the most important finishing touches with your shirt is the tie that you wear, completing the appearance and working with the elements of your shirt.
Generally, the advice about ties is that their proportions should be related to the width and length of a man’s build as well as his clothing style. This means if you are a tall man with a wide body, then a wider tie that can reach your belt is a good pairing. On the other hand, if you are shorter than average, then smaller ties with a shorter length are the way to go.
Choosing the colour of the tie is perhaps the biggest issue men face. If you want sophisticated and understated, then go for a semi-solid or lightly pattern tie in colours such as blue or green. However, if you want to draw attention to yourself, then go bold with a red tie against a pale shirt – the power tie look.
Whatever you choose, the important part is that you feel great and are comfortable. Wearing what makes you feel good about yourself will come across in your demeanour and could be the difference between enjoying an event or not, getting the job or not or winning a contract or not.