Not so long ago, there were few things more vociferously loathed in menswear than the unassuming short sleeve button up. This men’s separate has long been the butt of many a sartorial joke.
Though this garment might for some still bring to mind a certain global fast food chain’s uniform or the questionable wardrobe choices of provincial clubbers 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, buying manager 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.”
In recent years, and in line with menswear’s general shift toward all things casual, tropical prints, geometric patterns, flowing silk and Cuban collars have made arm-bearing shirts the natural choice for warmer weather. Because they’re not just stylish, but practical too. As the heavy heat of summer hits, a shorter sleeve keeps you adequately aerated – meaning no more unsightly sweat patches ruining your carefully considered look. That’s a win-win.
A Short (Sleeved) History
A bit of an anomaly when compared to other contemporary wardrobe staples, short sleeve 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.
Fast-forward to the fifties and sixties, and the button up 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.
What happened in the years that followed 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 sleeve 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.
Despite being essentially a slightly different version of something that most men wear every week, the perils of wearing a short sleeve button up are numerous. But, so long as you swot up on the factors that can make or break wearing this summer-ready staple, your chances of looking like an eye-sore with shoebox-shaped sleeves will be vastly reduced.
Surprise surprise. If you haven’t figured it out by now, this will always be the most important thing you can do for your personal style. No matter what your budget, making sure your clothes fit you perfectly is essential to pulling off any look, piece or fashion trend.
When it comes to short-sleeved shirts, there are two main areas you need to focus on: the sleeves and shoulders. The shirt should fit well across your shoulders without being too tight around your chest or through the sides. If you start to see any pulling or creasing in material – chest buttons and the upper back are two hot spots – think about sizing up or trying a different cut.
As for the sleeves, they should finish around mid-bicep and allow a single finger between the fabric and your arm, unless you’re going for a deliberately baggy Cuban style (in which case, caution is advised).
Most of the old sartorial rules don’t mean a damn thing anymore, but this one holds true: short sleeve 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 smarter looks and combining with tailoring, while also being reasonably lightweight. Linen (and, to a lesser extent, silk) are relaxed and breathable – perfect for staying cool during oppressive heat.
Polyester, poly-cotton blends and any other synthetic fibres are best avoided. 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 much breathability and will – in the unlikely of event of catching fire – see you immolated at a much faster rate than cotton.
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 design feature 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 but avoid contrast pockets if you want keep your aesthetic timeless and sophisticated.
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.
Your two main collar options on a short-sleeved shirt are a classic point collar or a Cuban collar. Whereas the latter can be worn on beneath a suit for a casual take on tailoring or teamed with chinos to nail modern Riviera chic, the point collar is trickier to master.
Try a buttoned down Oxford style, which will more likely jettison any accusations of being a walking style vacuum or leave the top couple of buttons undone to play up the shirt’s laid-back vibe.
How To Wear
The key to wearing a short sleeve shirt well is keeping the term ‘smart casual’ front and centre. That means understanding that this wardrobe essential doesn’t sit well with other firmly casual pieces like distressed jeans or joggers (you might just get away with side-stripe trousers depending on the style of shirt).
Beware the tuck. You can look like either like a sixties Nasa engineer or like you’ve just clocked off from a job in customer service. A Cuban collar is easier to style this way, and the same goes if you want to wear your shirt open over a T-shirt.
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.”
Recommended Brands For Short Sleeve Shirts
It’s well known that Topman is the unofficial outfitter of the country’s most style-savvy teenagers, but that’s not to say that grown-ups can’t get some of the brand’s cool credentials for themselves.
Topman excels at playful print and pattern, but its focus on fabric, fit and construction means that there’s so much more to love about the label’s sharp button ups beyond what catches the eye. Why should the kids have all the fun?
J.Crew has a reputation for bringing modern American preppiness to a global audience, but beyond the trusty classics, there’s a lot more forward-thinking design to be found than the brand is given credit for.
As well as stripe and check options, look out for modern florals, updated Hawaiian print and, of course, plenty of plaid. There’s a particularly good selection of fabric choices on offer too, so J.Crew should be your first port of call for reasonably priced linen and cotton short-sleeved shirts.
River Island may have been a high-street fixture for as long as we can remember, but age is no signifier of staleness as the British stalwart is more than adept at keeping its eye on what’s making waves in menswear.
If you’re in the market for something simple, go for a block-colour design, while if your collection of short sleeve shirts is in desperate need of a shake up, there are plenty of statement-making styles to get to grips with. This old dog has plenty of new tricks.
Though less than a decade old, British brand Percival has become a regular wardrobe fixture for men who are after quality and longevity coupled with considered design.
Fabrics for the brand’s shirts are sourced from all over the world to ensure the best possible construction while a healthy peppering of print, pattern and texture give familiar shapes an unexpected new lease of life.
If you’re keen on quality fabrics but haven’t got funds to fritter, you’re in luck – Japanese retailer Uniqlo has quite literally got your back covered.
Timeless styles such as short sleeve Oxford shirts and pastel linen designs form the lion’s share of the offering, which means that most styles here are ideal for throwing on at a moment’s notice and will age well.
Helmed by street style fixture Alexandre Mattiussi, French brand AMI doesn’t just do cool classics (though it boasts plenty) because streetwear and youthful design references are hallmarks of this design house too.
Rallying against stereotypes of pared-back French nonchalance, AMI’s short-sleeved shirts are instantly recognisable thanks to their elongated hems and dropped shoulders that add just the right amount of edge to the summer essential.
Thanks to Mango’s appreciation of retina-pleasing design and budget-friendly production techniques, modest means are no barrier to getting your hands on a seriously sharp short sleeve button up.
Highlights include high-quality, low-cost linen options, an impressive array of pastel colourways and all the collar shape options that you could possibly wish for.
Sitting a notch under the high-end heavy hitters, French brand Sandro is one of the most accessible faces of Gallic sophistication. This means for a non-stratospheric price tag, you can cop plenty of that not-really-trying style that the country is so famous for.
Superior fit and fabric may be calling cards for Sandro, but aside from nailing these all-important fundamentals, the more superficial stuff (that’s print and pattern) is just as impressive with the odd curveball design likely to pique your interest.
If Mr Porter wasn’t already appealing enough with its comprehensive yet tight edit of every luxury brand worth knowing about, in-house range Mr P. has further bolstered its saliva-inducing library of menswear.
Short sleeve shirts here focus on timeless style and wearability (who wouldn’t want those things?) but there are enough modern prints and collar shapes thrown into the mix to keep men who want to make more of a statement happy too.
When it comes to hitting that sweet spot between high street and high end, there are few brands which occupy the aspirational middle ground as confidently as Reiss. Alongside high-quality basics, this London-based brand excels at on-trend designs and cuts that stray from the beaten path.
In the Reiss repertoire you’ll find punchy prints (designed in its London atelier), timely colour options and consistently flattering fits that help keep the offer feeling contemporary.