In Defence Of The Short-Sleeved Shirt

Is there anything more vociferously loathed in menswear than the unassuming short-sleeved shirt? Although strictly speaking just a few inches of fabric lesser than its time-honoured counterpart – the long-sleeved shirt – this men’s separate has long been the butt of far too many a sartorial joke.

And we’ve had enough. Though this garment might for some still bring to mind a certain global fast food chain’s uniform or the questionable wardrobe choices of a provincial clubber circa the early aughts, it’s recently been given a whole new lease of life thanks to reinterpretations from designers and high street retailers alike.

“We need to show the short-sleeved shirt some love,” says Sam Kershaw, buyer at online menswear emporium Mr Porter. “It’s time to cast aside any dated associations with IT technicians, missionaries and Homer Simpson, and to remind ourselves that a shirt with short sleeves can be just as stylish as its longer-armed brother.”

Not only stylish, but also practical. As the mercury rises and the heavy heat of summer hits, a shorter sleeve keeps you adequately aerated – meaning no more unsightly sweat patches ruining your carefully considered look.

Origins

A bit of an anomaly when compared to other contemporary wardrobe staples, short-sleeved shirts didn’t really gain any traction in the menswear market until the early 20th century, when outfitters started to suggest them to customers as stylish kit for a spot of tennis.

The Short-Sleeved Shirt Started Out As Tennis Attire

Much like its long-sleeved counterpart, a short-sleeved shirt is usually crafted from cotton, linen, silk, polyester (shudder) or blends thereof – other fabrics like piqué, merino wool and synthetics like elastane are reserved for the more directly sportswear-influenced polo shirt.

Evolution

Fast-forward to the 1950s and 1960s, and the shirt has made the transition from athletic wear to something much more smart-casual – thanks in no small part to trendsetters of the time, including Elvis Presley, Billy Fury, Marlon Brando and James Dean, sporting the style.

It’s this precise period which designers are currently mining for inspiration, serving up both printed and plain short-sleeved shirts featuring subtle details like rolled and notched sleeves.

The Short-Sleeved Shirt Rose To Prominence thanks to the likes of James Dean

Later, as the many and varied subcultures of the 1970s began to bubble up, the short-sleeved shirt – by now a classic casual piece in the well-to-do gentleman’s wardrobe – was re-appropriated and worked into the skinheads’ uniform of braces, bleached jeans and bovver boots (tartan and gingham styles especially), as well the mods’ stylised ensembles.

The Skinheads adopted the short-sleeved shirt as part of their uniform

What happened in the years that followed (1980s to present) can pretty much be summed up as heinous style crimes we’ve only recently managed to forget. Gradually pushed further and further out of its elegant mid-century context, the short-sleeved shirt fell from favour dramatically, becoming the go-to piece for unimaginative corporate types on casual Fridays.

Now though, menswear’s powers that be have succeeded in dusting off the short-sleeved shirt, striving to erase our memories of terrible cuts and graph paper checks in a bid to encourage us to consider this wardrobe classic anew.

Fabric

While there’s little more boring than enforcing sartorial rules, it’s best to get one thing straight: short-sleeved shirts are casual, and smart-casual at their smartest – meaning you’ll probably only get the weather to wear them during the latter end of spring and through the summer months.

With this in mind, cotton and linen should be your first ports of call when considering fabric options. Cotton styles are more structured, making them ideal for smart-casual looks and combining with tailoring, while also being reasonably lightweight. Linen, however, is relaxed and unbeatably breathable – perfect for staying cool during the sweltering heat of summer.

Polyester, poly-cotton blends and any other synthetic fibres are best avoided if possible. You’ll find plenty of poly-cotton shirts on the market but despite their attractively low price tag, these won’t drape well, don’t offer a good degree of breathability, and will – in the unlikely of event of catching fire – see you immolated at a much faster rate than cotton; just saying.

Fit

Heads up, gentlemen – if you’re skimming through this article, then for the sake of your personal style and everyone else’s eyesight, read this paragraph carefully as most guys that try their hand at short-sleeved shirts end up getting the fit woefully wrong.

“When it comes to fit, think well-cut and not baggy,” says Sam Kershaw. “Sleeves should fall at least a few centimetres above the elbows and shouldn’t flap about like a pair of wings.”

You need to aim for something that’s slim but not tight. A short-sleeved shirt should flatter your form (as with any other casual or formal shirt) but not tightly hug your biceps, chest or neck. Boxier cuts (not sloppily oversized, mind) work too, but only if your wardrobe’s more Jil Sander than J.Crew.

Style

Equally important as sound fit is choosing the right style of short-sleeved shirt. For some unknown reason, many brands seem to treat this garment as a blank canvas on which to carry out their most bizarre, nightmarishly ugly creative experiments – think bad madras, garish slogans and lightning bolt motifs.

Needless to say, these are best sidestepped in favour of plain styles, contemporary florals, abstract camo and geometric prints. Understated neutral designs and subtle prints work well for teaming with classic looks made up of, say, chinos, boat shoes or sandals and a lightweight blazer. Louder prints and bolder block-colour styles, on the other hand, work best as the focal point of an otherwise pared-back look.

Details

Like their longer-sleeved counterparts, short-sleeved shirts can come equipped with a whole manner of different details, each with its own aesthetic advantages.

Rolled sleeves (with or without a button fastening) are a classic and look best on neutral or plain styles where their inclusion lends an otherwise fairly banal shirt a bit of interest.

Chest pockets are worth looking out for, too, but it’s probably best to avoid contrast pockets if you want keep your aesthetic timeless and sophisticated. If you’re looking to add a point of contrast, opt for something like a contrast placket or cuff instead.

For something with a slightly sportier feel, keep an eye out for styles with notched sleeves, similar to what you would find on a polo shirt.

How To Wear It

The key to wearing a short-sleeved shirt well is keeping the term ‘smart-casual’ front and centre. That means understanding that this wardrobe essential simply doesn’t sit well with other firmly casual pieces like distressed jeans or joggers. It’s not that it’s an out and out no-no, but it’s definitely tricky to get right.

For a fail-safe ensemble, team with chinos or smart trousers (or tailored shorts in warmer climes) and summer-ready footwear like boat shoes, sandals, loafers or minimal trainers.

Never tuck in. Never accessorise with a pocket square. And only wear open over a T-shirt if you’re an avid skateboarder. Button to the top if you want to look especially sharp, or leave one or two undone for a more relaxed effect.

And finally, as Kershaw notes: “never wear a short-sleeved shirt with a tie or any sort of neckwear, unless you actually are at the controls of a jumbo jet.”

Lookbook Inspiration: Plain Short-Sleeved Shirts

Men's Plain and Block-Colour Short-Sleeved Shirts Outfit Inspiration Lookbook

Perry Ellis SS14Jigsaw SS14Sarar SS14Sisley Summer 2014Faconnable SS15calibre SS14
Lookbook Inspiration: Patterned Short-Sleeved Shirts

Men's Patterned/Printed Short-Sleeved Shirts Outfit Inspiration Lookbook

all saints SS14reiss ss15river island high summer 2015Primark Summer 2015burton ss15matalan ss15office ss13club monaco summer 2014Ben Sherman Summer 20127 diamonds SS14asos ss14river island holloway rd ss14
Current Styles: High Street
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Final Word

An easy piece in theory, the short-sleeved shirt can be surprisingly difficult to get right in practice. That said, provided you heed a few all-important caveats, this staple will see your spring/summer style soar.

Are short-sleeved shirts already part of your warm-weather wear? Which styles win your seal of approval?

Comment below to let us know.