“Guys don’t need a lot of choices,” the menswear designer and retailer Sid Mashburn once declared. “They just need the right choice.”
Nowhere is this style koan more pertinent for men than in the matter of the shirt collar. When confronted with the dizzying array of variants on display – from tab to cutaway to club to forward point – the tyranny of choice is likely to get the average man rather hot under the, well, collar.
And beyond that initial hurdle, there are further questions to confront: formal or informal? Tie or no tie? And, perhaps most importantly – will it work with my face shape?
“Half the men coming to us know what collar they want – or profess to – while the other half are looking for some gentle guidance,” says Steven Quin, retail director at Turnbull & Asser, shirtmaker to the Prince of Wales, who presides over the firm’s bespoke shirt service.
“I think the key word for collars today is ‘adaptable’ – they need to take you through from office to evening. And, of course, they need to work with your outfit and complement your face shape.” Who better than Mr Quin to help us get our collars straightened out?
Shirt Collar Types To Consider
The breezy, relaxed fit of the Cuban collar (or camp, or revere) is a testament to its origin in the tropical climes of Hawaii and Havana in the 1950s. Early versions were run up in softer man-made fabrics like rayon and invariably featured palm tree or pineapple prints; today’s iterations come in cotton-linen mixes and more muted tones, and would work as well in a relaxed summer office as at some beachside cabana.
“It’s become a really popular option in the last few years,” says Quin, “as dress codes – and collars – have generally become less restrictive.”
Best for: All face shapes. “It sits on the chest rather than around the neck,” says Quin, “so it works across the board.”
The sharply-angled curves of the spread or cutaway were originally created to accommodate the wider Windsor tie knot popularised by the Duke of Windsor in the 1930s, and the collar remains a classic part of the formal business uniform, though its elegant geometries mean it looks equally good tieless under a knit sweater.
“It’s not as popular as it once was,” says Quin, “perhaps because it became known as the ultimate bankers’ collar. But it’s enjoying a revival among younger guys, who seem to be into looking smart again.”
Best for: An oval-shaped face. “Taller, thinner necks look great in it too,” says Quin.
The button-down was born of necessity; 19th-century polo players would fasten their collars down to keep them from flapping during play, and a visiting American – one John E Brooks – was so taken with the “collar roll” formed by the buttons that he mass-produced the Brooks Brothers button-down when he got back home, and most styles of Oxford shirts that have since become menswear staples.
Ivy Leaguers, Mods, and Gianni Agnelli (who, with typical sprezzatura flourish, wore his unbuttoned) have all fastened on to the style. “It’s the original versatile collar,” says Quin. “It looks as good under a blazer as it does with a cardigan.”
Best for: All face shapes. “The arch formed by the buttons means it sits just as well with a rounder or squarer face as an oval face,” says Quin.
Forward Point Collar
The Forward or Spear Point does exactly as the name suggests; the slightly longer and closer collar points downwards, framing the tie (should you choose to wear one), and creating a poised, balanced effect. It’s often been the movies’ shirt of choice, from ’30s and ’40s film noir to the exaggerated takes seen on Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s Casino.
“It’s more of a cult collar these days,” says Quin. “It goes particularly well with waistcoats, and it sets off a bow tie nicely.” He prefers this style buttoned up but if you keep the top button fastened, the air tie look can also work.
Best for: Round or square face shapes. “It has a slimming visual effect, so it complements those shapes very nicely,” says Quin.
If the devil is in the detail, the tab collar is positively satanic. It takes a standard collar and adds a small tab, closed with either snaps or a loop (or, in higher-tech variants, magnets), which pushes the tie knot up and out for an elegant drape. Stylish and dressy, it’s been a favourite of everyone from the Duke of Windsor to the Mods, and, in Skyfall, Daniel Craig’s Bond.
“It’s a personal favourite of mine,” says Quin, “because it makes the wearer look so sharp. It’s maybe not the first collar you’d go for, but it’s definitely one to consider if you want to stand out a little bit.”
Best for: An oval face. “The narrow spread is also better on a taller neck, because it helps it stand up a bit better,” says Quin.
Back in the days when the young turks at Eton College were looking forward to ruling the world (thank goodness that’s all behind us now, eh?), they worked out a stylistic way of setting themselves apart from the herd; they rounded the corners of their collars and created the Eton, or club collar.
The style soon spread to the Ivy League and onto preppy catwalks, and remains a mark of distinction that Prime Ministers and plumbers alike can aspire to. “It feels quite retro-modern,” says Quin. “You can put a tie with it, or you can pair it with knitwear.”
Best for: All face shapes. “Everyone can wear it, because it’s got that nice soft roundness to it,” says Quin.
Now, we know what you’re thinking: “Greed, ladies and gentlemen, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” Can we consider the contrast collar – white collar and cuffs, contrasting colour on the shirt body – without picturing Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, and all the other ’80s corporate raiders who presided over that omnivorous decade?
It seems we can, because, according to Quin, the contrast collar is back. “We’re seeing a lot of younger guys wearing them in a more casual way, with no tie,” he says. “It’s almost subverting it, in a way.”
Best for: Every face shape. “But a taller neck helps the contrast collar stand out more,” says Quin.
And finally, the collar that isn’t really a collar at all; the grandad collar or band collar, a modern day equivalent both of the wool undershirts worn during both World Wars, and the detachable collar shirts of the 1920s. It’s also known as the Nehru collar after the Indian prime minister of the ’50s, and it’s the go-to for a clean, even ascetic feel, on its own or under a cashmere sweater.
“It makes a strong statement,” says Quin, “but it’s in tune with the minimalist, dress-down ethos of a lot of modern workplaces.”
Best for: Oval face shapes; with a rounder face, there may be a little too much roundness going on.