The one, terrible thing about looking good naked must be how rarely you get to show people. Blame public decency laws, blame the Victorians, whose terror of nudity led them to cover the genitals of classic statues with tin fig leaves, but there are very few places where you can shed your kit without someone complaining.
Well, there’s Instagram, of course. And the gym. And the beach. And Instagram photos of you in the gym or on the beach. Then there’s public parks, lads nights out, doctor’s surgeries (a limited audience there, admittedly). But these are all places for casual dress. For the man with refined tastes and abs like a cattle grid, the opportunities to dress up while ensuring everyone knows that you can also do a muscle-up are as far between as your bench-honed nipples.
Which perhaps explains the popularity of the muscle-fit shirt. If you’ve never delved into their aisle before (in which case, bro, do you even lift?) then know that they’re a smarter, collared spin on the oh-so-tight tee of the same name. Essentially, it’s clothing as form-fitting as a wetsuit, designed purely to accentuate the finely tuned bodies beneath – skinnier than slim, slimmer than skinny. Both have innocent roots, a sensible solution to a frustrating problem. But they also reveal what happens when something sensible is taken to its illogical conclusion.
Where Did Muscle Fit Come From?
First, the issue: off-the-rack shirts, which are made to fit everyone, actually fit no one. The further you move from the mean, the bigger the disparity. That mostly used to mean the overweight and over-height, who once had to make do with big and tall stores. But it also poses a problem for anyone who takes a really serious interest in picking heavy things up and then putting them down.
Lay a normal shirt flat and you’ll see the shape a child draws clothes – rectangular body, arms pointing out from the top. This is, loosely, the average shape of the average man. But this is not the shape of the sportsman, with his inverted pyramid, from honed shoulders to narrow waist.
The solution, then, is a shirt with a ‘tailored’ fit; like the body within, they taper from up high to down low. It’s achieved with darts to the rear, less fabric in the hem, and a lower arm-hole, to better accommodate bigger triceps. They’ve long been the saviour of men with abnormal-in-a-good-way bodies, those who spend their Saturday morning on a rugby pitch, say.
But in the last ten years, the number of gyms in the UK alone has grown by 64 per cent. The average man exercises twice a week and increasingly does so indoors, with weights and battle ropes, rather than outside with a ball.
Now, thanks to all kinds of influences (including but not limited to: fitness magazines, Thor’s biceps, Love Island, #fitspiration, Cristiano Ronaldo and one-click-away porn), the kind of physique once reserved for men who didn’t mind a daily needle in the buttock is now what most men aspire to. And it arrived at precisely the time that their clothing began its shift from comfortable to painted-on.
The Problem With Muscle Fit
Hedi Slimane’s skinny jeans, originally designed for even skinnier models in the early 2000s, were the first falling pebbles in an avalanche of ever-tighter that led us, inexorably, to the sausage meat jeggings of Love Island. Like the muscle-fit shirt and super-deep Vs, these are wardrobe choices designed to draw attention to what they’ve not quite covered up. The argument being that if you absolutely have to be dressed, then your clothes should create no doubt as to what’s underneath.
And fair enough. If you’ve put the time in, the sweat, the discipline with your diet, it’s understandable you’d want to show off your work. Unlike style, which can be bought, a body takes effort. But take things too far and you kill the effect. There are times when a whisper speaks louder than a shout and your wardrobe, invariably, responds better to subtlety. If you have truly built a body to be proud of, then people will know. You don’t need to wear clothes that reveal your every bump and hollow.
Take Daniel Craig. The man who brought the beef to James Bond has his walking-out-the-water scene, but that’s enough. Everywhere else, he sticks to slim, trim and tailored, not spray-on. Like his dinner jackets, he wears his physique lightly. His shirts afford him to room to move, but have enough shape that no one could mistake his bulk for dough. So he can undo an extra button without seeming needy.
Because that’s what muscle-fit comes across as – insecurity. When your clothes look like the contents could burst free at any moment, it reads as fear that your size will be misconstrued as fat, rather than muscle. But don’t worry. We know. We’ll still know if you go for something slim and tailored, but that stops shy of figure-hugging. And you’ll still be the first person we come to when we’ve got a jar we can’t open. Promise.
The Expert View
“The increasing popularity of muscle fit shirts has been born out of a wider interest from men in their appearance in general. Whether it’s grooming, fitness or fashion, guys are taking care of themselves a lot more. The added elastane in the muscle fit style is form-flattering to both slim and muscular body shapes and guys want to wear closely tailored clothing to accentuate the physiques that they work hard on maintaining. At River Island, muscle fit is most popular in our formal attire.”
Erhan Orkay, head buyer for men’s shirts at River Island
“Traditional shirts are based on ancient designs and no longer work for the modern man, often being both ill-fitting and uncomfortable. Your physical appearance should not be an obstacle to dressing well. While our signature close-fitting cut aesthetically makes shirts look better by highlighting a man’s physique, it is designed to work for an athletic build; focusing on functionality and comfort, whilst maintaining a smart and stylish look.”
Harry Simonis, founder of Tailored Athlete
“I don’t think it’s ever a good idea. If you’re in good enough shape, you’ll be able to tell with a well fitted shirt, whether that be slim or regular. If you’re going for muscle-fit you’re clearly trying too hard to show off your physique, hinting that you’re pretty one-dimensional. If you’re not in the shape you want just yet, then it’s an even worse idea; no muscles don’t look good in muscle fit. And frankly, when it comes to attracting a partner, it’s an added surprise when you get to the taking-off-clothes stage. A stage you’re less likely to get to in your muscle-fit.”
Freddie Kemp, stylist at personalised men’s shopping site Thread
“At Son of a Tailor, we share the philosophy that a custom-fitted T-shirt should be measured to be snug around the arms, slim over the chest and look good on most men. Something that’s clearly too small or overly tight in certain dimensions is not a fit that we recommend our customers. A skin-tight shirt with stretchy fabric just doesn’t look right.”
Jess Fleischer, founder of fashion/tech startup Son of a Tailor
The Best Muscle-Fit Shirts
If you’re still intent on squeezing into a muscle-fit shirt though, these are the brands to try.
The Oxford shirt is nothing short of a wardrobe staple, but the sturdy cloth it’s normally made from isn’t too accommodating for the gym rats out there. What you need is added stretch, as is the case with many of Topman’s shirts, which feature extra elastane for increased comfort.
If you’re after a smart muscle fit shirt then you don’t need to look any further than Hollister, which basically specialises in the stuff. With strong tapered fits its shirts work well both tucked or untucked and are the perfect accompaniment to a pair of slim black jeans.
For muscle fit shirts that are both stylish and wallet friendly, River Island should be your destination of choice. With literally hundreds of different styles available, they’ll be something on offer regardless of whether you’re looking for something formal to pair with tailoring, or something casual to wear on the weekend.
BoohooMAN offers up an array of cuts from more relaxed styles through to slim and tailored fits, but its muscle fit shirts are perhaps the brand’s most popular. From long to short sleeve, button-down collars to regular point collars, some of its shirts even have up to 5% elastane woven into the fabric, further boosting comfort.
Burton’s tailoring game is among the best on the high street, so it’s no surprise it pumps out an array of shirts to complement its suiting. You don’t need to look hard to stumble across the muscle fit offerings, and there’s plenty of colour available too ranging from deep navy to burgundy and green.