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Dress Shirts: Everything you need to know

Written by Mr. WellCultured, Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008 in Fashion, The Style Guide

We talk about suits a lot on Well Cultured. Often too much. But can you really blame us? Over everything else in the typical male wardrobe, nothing is more famous or professional- or stylish- than the traditional suit. Of course, we’ve gone over the basics of suits, but now it’s time to get a bit more specific: the dress shirt.

Dress shirts are probably the most underrepresented and most important part of a suit (other than the suit itself). Dress shirts come in so many varieties it’s ridiculous- and sometimes it’s a bit daunting to actually find one of good quality that “works” with your suit. So, to help alleviate these issues (and to go further on our suits article), here’s a quick guide on the dress shirt.

The Basics

First off, for the sake of saving ourselves a lot of term debates, let’s define what a “dress shirt” is.

According to Wikipedia:

In American English, a dress shirt is a men’s shirt with a collar, a full-length opening up the front from the collar to the hem, and full length sleeves with cuffs. The opening fastens closed along a placket using buttons or studs, and the cuffs close with buttons or cuff links.

The British version of “dress shirt” is slightly different, and considering the vast majority of our readers are from America, we’ll be using the term “dress shirt” for our button-up-shirts-that-go-under-your-suit. We Americans like all-encompassing terms anyway.

Dress shirts are basically the standard for menswear nowadays- that is, they can be worn in the most formal and informal situations somewhat equally. Of course, because they are so versatile, they lend themselves to a variety of styles- so there is no single shirt that works for every circumstance. Still, you can get away with a lot- most don’t know the difference anyway.

Styles of Dress Shirt

For the sake of not making this a 300 page long article, I’m going to go over some of the basic styles you see on dress shirts today- I won’t bother with some of the older styles you no longer see anymore (except in Brooks Brothers stores, just because they are arrogant like that).

Color, Pattern, and Fabric Styles

More than likely, you will need to worry about color and fabric more than anything else- because that’s what most notice.

Most shirts you will find nowadays are cotton, linen, polyester, or silk, or some blend thereof. It’s always best to check the shirt label for care instructions- most shirts can be cleaned in a washing machine, but some (silk ones specifically) cannot- so always keep careful.

Most shirts are made with a matte texture (i.e. not shiny), however, many shirts can be found with a satin (or “sateen”) style. In general, the latter are seen more with darker jewel colors, however, exceptions always apply. Much like color, the style of the cloth is largely dependent on how you intend to wear it.

The color of shirts varies immensely. There is rarely a “normal” color shirt- however, in general, colors such as white and black are the most popular just for simplicity. For all intents and purposes, you should have a white shirt in your closet (it matches with 90% of all ties), but there are no rules so far as other colors.

So far as pattern, patterns are rarely found on traditional dress shirts to be worn with suits. It’s incredibly hard to find a pattern that works with a suit- but they do exist, so be open to the idea. Still, traditionally, plain dress shirts go best with suits. Personally, I’ve only seen stripes work well with suits so far as patterns are concerned, but there’s always room for improvisation.

Collar Styles

There are only really four collar styles you will ever run into:

Narrow to medium Spread (also known as “Kent” or “Business”) collars are what you will find on most shirts sold today. These are starched thick collars that range in their distance from the tie knot, and virtually every shirt maker will have a different play on this, but they all tend to look around the same style. More than likely, this will be your bread-and-butter, so stick with these unless you’re experimenting stylistically.

Wide (or “British”) Spread collars are rarely (if ever) seen nowadays, and essentially are collars that point towards the far end of the collarbone (and sometimes to the shoulder) rather than pointing “down”, for lack of a better term. These are much more popular in Europe than America, but you can get them at good stores worldwide. When wearing a shirt like this, bigger tie knots tend to look better.

Button-Down collars are just that- buttoned down at the ends with little buttons. You see these frequently on more informal oxford shirts and other styles clearly not meant to be worn with suits. They can be worn with a suit (you’ll see politicians do it when they try to be “informal”), but it’s not exactly that style-forward.

Club (or Round, Rounded) collars are collars where the ends are rounded off, instead of featuring a point. These are occasionally seen nowadays, but were much more popular in the early 1900s.

Cuff Styles

Thanks to the “lazification” of society, we can thankfully say that despite various trends that popped up in the mid 20th Century, there are but two styles of cuff you have to worry about:

Barrel Cuffs are cuffs that wrap around once and fasten with one button. Most dress shirts nowadays have two buttons for the barrel, which accounts for the odd “34/35” numbers with most shirts- they are meant for two sizes. These are the most commonly seen, and probably what you will have the most of.

Single and French (or Double) Cuffs are best known as the cuff styles that require you have a cufflink. These, instead of having buttons for your shirt, just have two holes, in which you fasten with cufflinks and look pompous. These are actually very fashion forward, but are rarely seen in department stores nowadays.

Miscellaneous changes

White Collar/Cuff shirts feature just that- white collars and white cuffs in contrast to a colored shirt. These were more popular in the early 90s, but you see ’em now and again.

Textured shirts feature special textures or designs on the cloth. This sometimes, but rarely, includes embroidered shirts – with strange designs on the front. Much like patterns, there really is no “common style”, so play it careful, but be willing to try them out.

Wearing and Maintaining a Dress Shirt

Of course, once you have your “perfect” dress shirt, you obviously have to wear it right- and, thankfully, it’s kinda hard to mess up.

First off, as a general rule, keep your dress shirts ironed and clean. Yes, ironed. Unfortunately, most shirts are not made to look good without being pressed and clean, so it’s essentially a necessity. Most shirts you purchase (that is, most of the ones that don’t contain silk or other delicate fabrics) can be simply thrown in the washing machines and ironed- however, some may require dry cleaning. Obviously, the former are a hell of a lot easier to deal with than the latter.

So far as actually wearing the dress shirt, traditional style dictates that you unbutton no more than two buttons- basically, opening the shirt no more than about three inches from your neck. Going too much can seem like you’re going for the wannabe gigolo look, too little will make you look stuffy. When wearing a tie, however, all buttons should be buttoned, period. Naturally there is some elbow room in the “button policy” which depends on the shirt. One exception is that button-down collars can be worn either buttoned down or not, I’ve personally never heard a rule on that topic.

Other than that, few hard-and-fast rules exist about dress shirts- do as you like.

So, hopefully with this article, I’ve given you a good idea of something normally very minute- a dress shirt- and given you some ideas for future purchases. As always, feel free to contact us with questions, comments, or angry e-mails ranting about how wrong we are!

10 Responses to Dress Shirts: Everything you need to know

  1. Yum22Yum23 says:

    There might be a slight difference for us non americans, I see more wide collar shirts on a regular basis than not, most if not all of my own shirt are wide collars, and that is good, because I only know the windsor tie knot, which is thick and wide.
    It might just be me this time, but I have seen very little stores with french cuffs, but the fact they all use barrel cuffs might be because i’m not aiming for the biggest brands.

  2. Nick says:

    I think it’s kind of interesting that you say there’s not much need for wide collars. Very often they’ll look really quite good with a wide tie knot, but even with a basic knot they can be pulled off with a little confidence.

    Two of my best fitting (non-tailored) dress shirts are wide collar, and I wear them to work quite often and get complimented on the shirts (and collars) fairly regularly.

  3. Kirk says:

    Quick fix:
    I changed the comment on wide collars. That was intended for another style of collar (club collar), and is further evidence I need to stop composing shit at 3 AM, I get confused.

  4. Bo says:

    What a coincidence. I’ve been wearing T-shirts for my whole life, only wearing dress shirts for formal occasions and not feeling completely comfortable in them, but here’s my story of the past two weeks:
    Now that I’m done with school (I’m European, but I suppose it’s Ammie College-level education or higher) I’ve been hunting for jobs and had to look nice and representable. I’ve been having job interviews every two days for the past two weeks and I bought a few dress shirts to look good.
    I actually felt really good in them. So two days ago me and some buddies were going drinking and ten minutes before I get ready to leave I look in the mirror and see myself with this sloppy T-shirt. A T-shirt I’ve been wearing for a long time and I really love, and I think “Who the fuck are you kidding?” So I get to my room, toss the T-shirt off and put on one of my new dress shirts and a nice belt.
    I felt terrific that evening. I felt so comfortable and well-presented.

    Today I’ve cleaned out my closet. I’m throwing away more than a dozen T-shirts and two jeans and my order for four new dress shirts arrived as well, today. I’ll be buying some new pants on Monday and I’m getting a nice watch as well.
    This is a whole new start for me and I’m not going to fuck it up.

    PS: I think perhaps a part should be added about the wear of undershirts.

  5. Chris says:

    I agree with Bo about adding a part about undershirts, even if it’s only a sentence or two of information, I think it’s necessary. Some of us don’t even wear dress-shirts to a degree where such know-how is custom. 😀
    I myself am 16, going into the twelfth grade and dress in the style of the typical lanky teenager: close-fitting t-shirts, mostly cargo pants or chinos, some jeans (albeit a bit of a preppy teenager at times)…However, this fall I’m thinking of enhancing my wardrobe to include a more mature fashion sense, while remaining casual.
    So, again, an edit to include undershirt etiquette would be appreciated.

  6. !vYYNV4ZN1k says:

    I third the request for a section on undershirts. I feel awkward wearing an image t-shirt or buying a wife-beater to wear beneath a dress shirt. That aside, a section on understanding how to properly purchase a dress shirt would also be appreciated. It’s sometimes odd to go shopping and want to buy a quality shirt, but not quite understanding how to measure yourself- I’ve never understood neck size, and more than once purchased a shirt that didn’t fit correctly.

    I do suppose that department stores have attendants that are trained for their jobs for a reason, though.

  7. Joe says:

    I wear button button down dress shirts casually at work (top 2 buttons undone) My question is about the 2 collar point buttons, should those be done or undone? If they are buttoned the collar looks squished and like I should have a tie on, if they are unbuttoned the collar points open up a bit too much…thoughts?

  8. JV says:

    If you don’t want an undershirt showing when the top button is undone, get some plain V neck t-shirts. Normally if I’m wearing a shirt casually I’ll have the top 2 undone with the undershirt showing, a complimenting colour though of course.

  9. Mike Smith says:

    I wear open collar dress shirts (two buttons undone) pretty regularly. I don’t wear undershirts and have never had a problem. Is it appropriate to wear any dress shirt (open collar) with jeans? For example, I wear white and blue often, sometimes stripes and sometimes different collar colours.

  10. Matt says:

    My company has recently gone to a NO tie aproach…THANK YOU!!. The question I have is this…my dress shirts all seem to look sloppy and seem to show way too much neck and chest with that top collar button undone. I happen to have one Kenneth Cole Reaction dress shirt that has the second button down located in a much higher location than any of my other shirts. This one looks great when worn without a tie as the top of the shirt seems to stay much closer and reveals less of the neck and chest. Anyone know of other shirts that are laid out this way? Is there some term I should use when purchasing a shirt so that it will fit in much the same way?

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