The formal or dress shirt is an integral cog in the well-oiled machine that is the fashion conscious man’s wardrobe. Despite many variations, the construction of the dress shirt has remained relatively consistent since its conception and evolved from a design that was originally an item of men’s underwear until the turn of the twentieth century.
The correct shirt selection can add character and individuality to an otherwise utilitarian office outfit, so careful consideration is advised when the time comes to refresh your work attire. Although hard and fast rules are rarely adhered to religiously by the modern man of style, certain guidelines – especially when it comes to occasion and fit – are at the very least worthy of attention.
The numerous variables in terms of detail, though somewhat unusual for such a classic piece, provide an understated depth and mark the evolution of the garment’s illustrious lifespan. Understanding the nuances and specifics of this menswear mainstay (as with any item of clothing) is fundamental in making an educated investment and matching with other key pieces.
According to menswear commandment number one, when it comes to making decisions of the sartorial persuasion, knowledge is king.
The collar is one of the formal shirt’s more prominent features and unless you’re a fan of the television football pundit look, is an aspect not to be overlooked. As well as indicating the formality of the shirt, the collar’s almost eye-level position is difficult to miss and can therefore easily make or break an otherwise carefully curated ensemble.
Although there are several other types of collar such as the club, tab and contrast collar, the images below and following sections outline the more common examples:
Image Courtesy of Mr Porter
The most prevalent collar style, the forward or straight point collar is cut using straight lines and with a relatively small spread. It is the design most associated with the traditional men’s dress shirt.
Its balanced and neutral appearance exudes confident sophistication, whilst it remains versatile enough to blend comfortably with both formal and casual attire.
The point collar’s adaptable style means that it is suitable for office rookies and Savile Row aficionados alike, works well with or without a tie (depending on the occasion) and aligns with all manner of suit lapels.
Wear with a traditionally cut suit and small tie knot (such as the four-in-hand) for a refined yet composed look or dress down with a blazer, twill trousers and loafers for a more off-duty approach.
Also known as the cutaway or Windsor collar, the spread collar comes in various widths and angles, revealing more of the upper shirt or tie than the aforementioned point collar.
Due to the distance between the collar points (some almost horizontal), the spread collar is rarely worn without a tie and is reserved for business/formal dress only. Gaining popularity in recent years, the spread collar’s width complements those with a slim build by balancing the body’s vertical lines.
A more pronounced spread collar, such as the Londoner, can make an effortless yet elegant statement whilst providing the perfect frame for larger knot ties such as the full Windsor.
Dress for the city by matching with a modern cut suit, single colour textured tie, pocket square and black Oxford shoes.
As the name suggests, the button-down collar is attached directly to the shirt body by way of two small buttons and can be worn with or without a tie.
Naturally suited to more casual surroundings, the button-down was initially introduced by Brooks Brothers in 1896 based on the sports shirts worn by polo players.
The least formal of the collar family, the current trend is to wear without a tie and with the shirt buttoned to the top (although the collar itself is rarely left unbuttoned). Channel the style’s laid back aesthetic by combining with chinos and chukka boots.
Often overlooked, the shirt cuffs (along with collar) are one of the few features visible when coupled with a suit jacket. An effective choice demonstrates a keen eye for detail and completes a polished and perfectly proportioned appearance.
Again, today we will be outlining the current more common examples:
Image Courtesy of Mr Porter
The button cuff is the traditional and most popular cuff type and the basic single button style is commonly seen in high street menswear stores. Consisting of a single cuff that wraps around the wrist and buttons into place, this functional option can offer square, round or angled corners and some versions provide an additional adjacent button for adjustment.
The more formal barrel cuff has two or three vertical buttons (and buttonholes), rather than the single, and is therefore longer – its extra fastenings provide a snug fit around the wrist.
Shirts with barrel cuffs also often come equipped with a gauntlet button; a small button between the cuff and cuff opening allowing for a better fit around the forearm.
Made famous by Sean Connery in the James Bond film ‘Dr No’, the turnback cuff is one of the least well-known styles, although its combination of elegance and functionality is now thought to be making something of a comeback.
The cocktail or turnback cuff is essentially a double length two-button barrel cuff that then folds back on itself, while the corners are usually rounded to avoid any snagging in the jacket sleeve.
The turnback cuff walks the line between the more casual button cuff and the formal French cuff, with its striking style providing a flamboyant and unique edge to the most monotone of working wardrobes.
This classic dress shirt cuff folds back around the wrist and is fastened by cufflinks rather than buttons. Although they are ceremonial in style, the French cuff is not reserved for black tie events only and is perfectly acceptable daily wear in many workplaces.
Often only provided with high end and custom shirts, this is perhaps not the obvious choice for the limited budget, especially when coupled with the necessity of cufflinks. It is worth, however, having at least one such shirt in the locker, as nothing pairs more perfectly with a beautifully tailored suit and silk tie.
The dress shirt is manufactured using a number of different materials dependent on the shirt’s design and function. Broadcloth and Poplin (available in a range of thread counts) are essentially the same type of fabric; the simple over and under weave provides a smooth and formal shirting. Twill is a more detailed and elaborate textile, with its diagonal and herringbone patterns and heavier material regularly used in constructing checked shirts.
Oxford shirts are a less formal option that should have a home in every man’s collection – their thick and sturdy cloth is generally used in combination with the button-down collar.
Although many modern shirts are now sized small, medium, large, etc. it is certainly good practice to know your measurements. The neck measurement is particularly important when purchasing more formal shirts, where one finger should fit comfortably between the collar and neck.
A more fitted style around the torso is also more flattering and practical – ballooning flaps of cloth above the waistband are not so appealing. The general consensus on cuffs is that they should just touch the hinge of the wrist or protrude around half an inch from the jacket sleeve.
Whether you have ambitions on becoming the admin department’s very own Don Draper, the local cocktail bar’s 007 or are just preparing for a formal event, a little inside information on the backbone of British menswear can go a long way.