Suit or sport jackets are flattering garments. There's a lot of articles out there — including here on RMRS — that will tell you all about looking good in a jacket.
But what about those times when you don't want to wear a jacket?
It may be a consideration of formality, although there are casual jackets that wouldn't be out of place even in very relaxed situations.
It might be a purely practical decision on a hot day. Or you might be at a workplace that requires collared shirts but no jacket.
Whatever the reasons, there are ways to look good wearing that most basic of men's garments: the collared dress shirt. Here are our recommendations.
Before you Buy: How to Get a Dress Shirt that Looks Good on Its Own
We'll talk specific looks and outfits in a minute, but first it's important to know how you buy a decent dress shirt in the first place.
Fit matters most.
This will always, always, always be true. The best-looking shirt is one that rests comfortably close to the body whether it's tucked in or not, with no loose billowing around the waist or wide gaps between the neck and the collar.
Off-the-rack shirts tend to be cut large. It's an economic choice if you're trying to sell shirts to as many men as possible, but it's bad fashion.
Unless you're very broadly-built, you should expect to either be buying shirts specifically tagged as “slim fit” or taking your shirts to a tailor for custom adjustments (particularly slender men may need to do both).
It's hard to overstress the difference this will make between you and 99% of the other men you interact with. Your shirts will look natural and comfortable; theirs will not. It translates into a much better-looking outfit.
Style #1: Classic in Khakis
The time-honored white collar uniform: khaki pants; collared dress shirt.
Often it's good to class this one up with a casual jacket, but if you don't want to — say to avoid out-dressing your immediate supervisor, or just on a hot day — you can still make it look sharp.
Pick a shirt with a little bit of pattern to it (white with colored stripes or fine checks is always good), make sure the fit is good, and throw a lively, bright-colored necktie on top. Add some leather dress shoes with a little flair — wingtips or brogues, say — and all of a sudden you're not just Office Drone Guy.
Personalized details like a decorative belt buckle or a stylized tie clip help make this look unique as well.
Style #2: Flashy Trousers, Simple Shirt
Let's say you've ditched not only the jacket but the necktie. Maybe it's after 5:00, or maybe you work in California and a tie automatically makes you “the man.”
Avoid looking like a schlub in gotta-wear-'em corporate clothes by wearing a pair of really nice trousers. Maybe for you that means wickedly-crisp sharkskin wool; maybe it means lime green corduroys. Just pick something eye-catching that no one will mistake for yet another pair of off-the-rack khakis.
Then throw on a simple dress shirt in a solid, contrasting color, or just in a soft cream color. Tuck it in, leave the collar open (make sure there's no undershirt peeking out), slip on a pair of loafers without socks, and give people a cheery grin whenever they meet your eye.
It's your look, so own it.
Style #3: Working Man Denim
Got a workplace or social event relaxed enough for denim? Throw on some dark blue jeans with a close fit (no cargo pants or battered work jeans here) and tuck a patterned dress shirt into them.
Something with both color and pattern works well, like a blue-and-white striped shirt.
Pick a wider belt than your average dress belt, throw a decorative buckle on it, and then roll your sleeves up firmly.
You want a nice narrow roll that stays in place either just below or just above your elbows, rather than a carelessly tossed-back cuff — the goal is to look like you're ready to work with your hands at a moment's notice, but still take the time to dress sharp.
Chukkas or similar dress boots make a natural pairing for this look, as do cowboy boots or wing-tip brown leather shoes. Saddle shoes also work well.
Style #4: The Vacationer
Sometimes you just want to look carefree. Shedding the jacket gets you part of the way there, but finish it off with a relaxed, light-colored ensemble.
Khakis are a good default trouser choice here, but you could go for light-colored linen pants or white cotton trousers as well. Wear a light dress shirt — pastels work, as do stripes of white and another light color — and keep it untucked.
Add a pair of leather sandals or slip-ons with no socks, let the trousers ride a little high, and stroll slowly wherever you go. A classic straw hat really finishes it off in style, if you happen to have one handy. It's a breezy look that needs a good fit to avoid sagging, so pay particular attention to your tailoring here.
Pick Any Look, But Make It Yours
The key to all these looks is confidence.
Going without a jacket means going without that handy, tapered shape that squares your shoulders off and narrows your waist.
A dress shirt on its own doesn't carry the same visual punch — you're going to have to provide a lot of that yourself.
Make sure the shirt and trousers are well-fitted, keep everything neat and clean, and walk with your back straight and your head high. Resist the urge to stick your hands in your pockets.
There's a lot of possibilities for just a plain old dress shirt on its own. Pick one and really own it, and you're sure to impress.