An introduction to the men’s dress shirt. The article touches on its origins and parts to include the collar, cuffs, front style, back style, buttons, and pockets. It also cover fabrics and colors with links to other useful articles.
Dress Shirt Introduction
The men’s dress shirt is a button-up shirt with a collar and long sleeves. It is cut differently than the sport shirt, which is made to be worn open-necked and looks awkward with a tie.
The dress shirt is designed to carry a jacket and tie, but can be worn without one or the other or with neither. Various shirts with different sorts of collars and cuffs are appropriate for different ranges of attire, and many can run the gamut of formality.We do not discuss the short-sleeve shirts here as that their lack of sleeves prevents them from being worn with a jacket, a prerequisite for a dress shirt.
Over the past half-century, the dress shirt has gone from being an undergarment to holding a prominent place in many outfits. This is one reason why it is today available in so many more colors and patterns than the plain white ubiquitous in days past.
Additionally, when most working men’s jobs involved getting their hands dirty, clean white cuffs were a status symbol, a symbol that the man wearing them was above the dirty work.
Today whether one’s style is chinos or suit and tie, shirts are an essential means of expanding one’s wardrobe, since they both offer more variety and cost less than suits, shoes, and most other items in men’s dress. Here to the left we a see a modern interpretation of the dress shirt. This lavender with white and purple stripes may not be for everyone, but on the right man and with the proper cut it will look great. Notice how the lines match up?
Most men wear dress shirts that do not fit them properly. By wearing a shirt that fits you properly in the neck, sleeves, chest, and stomach you will not only stand out but you will improve your appearance dramatically.
A Precursor –
The fact that most men wear shirts that are too large has to do with the basic problem with off-the-rack clothing; you only have so many choices. With every man having a different physical profile, it’s impossible for large scale shirt manufactures to build a garments that fit everyone; they try to get around this problem by building shirts for the mythical average men. Perhaps you’ve met them: Small, Medium, and Large. The result is that you end up finding a shirt with the right sleeve length, but the shoulders, neck, and chest are too large.
When you find something that fits in the chest, you find that you need another inch in the sleeves. And so you make do: don’t. I highly recommend a man consider custom shirts if he wants a proper fit. Unless you are very lucky or find a brand that used your profile as one of its mythical men, your time is better spent focusing on what fabrics or styles to choose. There are many companies out there that can build a much better shirt for the same price you’ll pay for a name brand off the rack one.
Whatever it is worn with, a shirt should fit snugly without restricting movement. Just as the shirt protects the jacket’s lining from absorbing too much grease and sweat from the skin beneath, an undershirt can take the brunt of perspiration to keep a dress shirt looking fresh all day and extend its life. If the shirt is to be worn open-necked, a crew-neck t-shirt will peek out below the throat, an adolescent look most men do well to avoid. V-neck tees are much safer. Some men prefer to feel the dress shirt’s finer fabric against their skin, and forgo an undershirt altogether.
Dress Shirt Fabric
A shirt’s color is the first thing we notice. It can be determined a hundred feet away and may send a message that the man wearing it is outgoing or that he knows how to fit in. Neither message is better than the other, but a man who understands the role of color and its effect has control over what is being said.
White is the most common shirt color, and for good reason. Historically, it has dominated the scene, and initially was the only choice for a gentleman. The lack of color and stains on a man’s collar and cuffs signified he was above working with his hands and sweating to earn a living. It wasn’t until the English began to introduce colors from their weekends and country wear that colors and patterns became fashionable. Still, white holds it’s place as the most formal color; a man can safely assume a white shirt will never be out of place.
Blue came on to the shirt scene a bit later, but it’s dominance of second has more to do with it’s looks than heritage. Blue and colors with similar hues are especially flattering to most male complexions; thus the popularity of blue exploded in the United States as more and more off-the-rack manufactures looked for colors and patterns that would sell. Today the color firmly holds a place as the second most popular color.
Pink, gold, lavender…..the popularity contest continues. These other colors make great accents, but can stand as solids themselves on the right man. And that’s a point that is often overlooked; every man has a unique look based off his complexion, hair color, eye color, and their amount of contrast. Using these cues, a man is better served to find the color and combinations that compliment his unique style than to chase the popular colors of the season.
Solid -The simplest pattern is none at all. But solid shirts are anything but simple, especially if you play with the weave. A solid white twill fabric has a very different look and feel from a solid white poplin. In addition, by choice to go solid allows a man the option to highlight other aspects of the shirt such as a unique collar style or to focus the attention of what really matters, his face.
Stripe – Less formal that a solid, the striped shirt is a man’s opportunity to add some pizazz to his outfit. Most men can’t go wrong with a classic white on blue, but those who know how to dress seek to add certain accent colors such as red or pink to liven up the hues in the face. Many people are confused about wearing striped shirts with striped ties (or pin-striped suits for that matter). The rule here is that the distance between the stripes should be different; otherwise you have the optical illusion of movement.
Check- the most casual pattern, it is the busiest pattern and the one least seen on ready made shirts. Historically, the purpose of the check was to identify and signify a wearer’s background. Today, most men are intimidated to wear such a pattern with a suit as that it appears overpowering; it needn’t be, just remember not to mix like patterns; a checked shirt with a solid suit and striped tie is a great combination. Just don’t wear it to meet the Queen of England.
Cotton vs Blends
The battle has been raging for sometime: on one side you have those who say that cotton is king, and you should never compromise. Others argue that there is a time and place for blends, and that many of the properties man made fibers bestow upon a blended shirt are well worth the compromise. I personally believe it depends on your needs and wants.
If you work in an air conditioned building, are price sensitive, and new to quality shirting then blends are a viable option. If you are a traveler, have plenty of money, and spend time in hot weather then cotton is perhaps a better choice. For more information on shirt fabrics in general, click here.
Dress Shirt Style
The Shirt Collar
Men’s dress shirt collars come in all different colors, sizes, and styles (the figure to the left displays the six common areas where tailors adjust the size and length). The purpose of a shirt collar is to frame the face; it’s goal is to draw an observers eyes to yours so that you can get your message across.
Regardless of the type of jacket or tie, ones shirt collar is always visible, and plays a major role in determining how the wearer’s face will appear to observers. Choosing the right shirt collar will ensure you enhance your facial strengths while downplaying any irregularities.
Turndown collars are the staple found on gentleman’s shirts, and offer the most opportunity for individual taste. These collars, as the name suggests, are turned down, forming a sort of triangle whose angles vary with the particular look one is aiming for.
Although there are countless variations, the turndown collar comes in two main categories: the point and the spread (or cutaway).
The point collar is the most common collar style, where the collar is cut so that the “points” are reasonably close together, sometimes to the extent that they almost hide the top portion of a tie.
Longer, more closely set points tend to draw the eye down towards the tie and away from the face, while a more moderate cut frames the tie and completes the arrow effect pointing at the face. The second popular style is the cutaway, or spread collar. These collars have the points “cut away” or spread – thus the name – revealing more of the upper shirt area and leaving additional room for larger knots such as the Windsor.
Like the point, spread collars come in a variety of widths, with more moderate ones resembling slightly flared point collars, while more extreme versions can be nearly horizontal.
Button cuffs are single cuffs which wrap around the arm and are buttoned into place. These are the cuffs most commonly found on ready made shirts. Button cuffs may have a single button or may be adjustable, with two buttons side-by-side.
Some have two buttonholes and two vertical buttons, a more formal option often called the barrel cuff. Button cuffs may also have a small button on the sleeve, between the cuff and the end of the cuff opening, intended to prevent the area from opening and exposing the gentleman’s wrist.
French cuffs are the most formal option, yet are perfectly appropriate for daily wear in many industries such as finance. The French cuff is a double cuff, folded back and fastened with cufflinks to create a distinctive and distinguished appearance.
Cufflinks must always be worn – though there are more subtle options available, such as fabric knots – so the gentleman must be prepared to keep a reasonable selection on hand. For more information on the well dressed man and jewelry, consider this article.
Dress Shirt Buttons
A shirt’s buttons are perhaps its most underrated detail. Most men don’t give buttons a second thought outside of their functionality; if they work and don’t draw attention to themselves, then that’s good enough.
But take a close look at them, and you may be lucky enough to find a world of intricate design – two holes, four holes, engravings, and a variety of materials used to craft these little wonders.
Most buttons today are made of plastic; a suitable material for the job, as that it is inexpensive and fairly strong. If a quality resin is used, the plastic buttons will do an excellent job of holding up despite hundreds of rough washings. If a low quality resin is the base of your buttons you will find cracking and they may fail within a year.
An eloquent alternative to plastic is Mother of Pearl. These buttons are made from shell, are so hard that they can break needles, and were once the standard button used on clothing.
Unfortunately the double blow of cheap plastic and modern harsh detergents (causes gradual disintegration) slowed demand to a trickle, all but wiping out the industry. Today, you only find them on the highest quality shirts; a small detail, but as Tom Wolfe said in The Secret Vice, “All of these marginal differences are like that. They’re so small, they’re practically invisible. All right! That’s what’s so maniacal about it”.
Most shirts have a single pocket on the left breast; the vast majority of men never use this pocket – so why is it there? It does give the appearance of depth, and with a wide variety of styles available it is a detail many men like on their shirts, but the fact of the matter is that most men would actually do better to have no pocket at all. A simple clean look, which by default increases the formality of the shirt (although this is easily offset by a casual fabric) while setting it apart from the crowd.
As mentioned above, there are many styles for shirt pockets, and on some very casual ones (especially those with a western theme) you do see a double pocket. The difference usually lie in the overall shape and whether or not it has a flap. Shapes range from the jagged diamond cut (on the left), to the common square cut, to the uncommon rounded edge cut (seen to our right). Adding a flap to any pocket is possible, but the wearer should realize this makes the shirt very informal and not suitable for wear with a suit.
There are three common dress shirt back types, the first two being defined by the type and positioning of their pleat while the last one being defined by it’s absence of one. Perhaps the most common shirt back style is the single large double pleat found on the back center of most off the rack men’s dress shirts. The design and purpose of this large pleat is simple; to help the shirt conform to as many men’s figures as possible. Despite it’s large size and dubious duty, it is a trait loved by many shirt enthusiasts and is often asked for even on custom made shirts (where the need for pleats is superfluous).
A less common pleat that serves the same purpose, albeit more effectively but is more expensive to manufacture, is the double pleat. Located on the shoulder blades, this pleat set distribute the work of conforming the shirt shape and has a more aesthetic appeal. The last back style, no pleat at all, is found on custom shirts. As that the shirt was made to the wearer’s measurements, usually complemented with a split yoke, there is no need for a pleat at all.
Monograms on Shirts
Monograms originated as a form of shirt identification when large amounts of clothing was washed by those not intimately familiar with the wearers (Imagine trying to sort the clothing for a family with 5 similar sized boys). Eventually they became more of a status symbol, with Hollywood stars such as Fred Astaire wearing his on the forearm of his shirt to display its pedigree. Today, many men enjoy using a subtle color or placing it in a hard to notice location, reserving it as a secret for only the observant to find.
A bit of advice for beginners – if building your dress shirt collection seek versatility in your clothing. To maximize value and eliminate confusion, you want to be able to wear any dress shirt with any suit you own. Avoid extremes, and slowly build your range by experimenting with patterns, colors, and styles that compliment your features. Once you have this down, you can with confidence move into complex world of multi-color patterns and eccentric style.