Q. Most of the business shirts I have don’t look professional enough to wear with a suit or sports jacket. What should I look for to be sure I have something appropriate (and suitable) that works for me, buying online or in a physical store?
A. When it comes to shopping for dress shirts, you made a smart first decision by agreeing to go to a clothing store rather than trying to find something online. And while you decide to do that, my strong suggestion is to pick a high-end, good-quality store where the salespeople are more likely to be knowledgeable.
The first advantage is that the seller will start by measuring you. In the years that I’ve worked with menswear, I’ve heard a lot of men say, “I’ve worn a 15½, 33 shirt my whole life,” when what they might need now is a size 16 collar, 34 sleeve. Even the fittest man (in fact, especially the fittest man more athletic) will change in size over its lifetime. More often than you might expect, men wear the wrong size shirt.
Buying a shirt is about more than knowing the correct size. The shirts are available in three different types of cuts, at least three different types of collars, two types of cuffs, many colors and patterns and a wide variety of fabrics. A good store will have all of these and show you what they think works well. It certainly helps to know the choices before you arrive, and they tie directly into your question of what works best with suits and jackets.
Three different cuts: for many men, this is the most important element.1. Traditional or Classic (full cut) – These are best for old-school gentlemen who like to be quietly well-dressed, but don’t want to stand out from the crowd. 2. Bespoke (medium-full) – Choose these for their versatility. They work for the man who cares about clothes, but doesn’t want to appear too involved in fashion. 3. Slim – Think of the trendy young man who loves the modern silhouette. He is avant-garde, fit and proud of it.
Three types of collar: this is closely tied to his personality and background.
- Button-down collar – an Ivy League, academic and preppy look that goes with traditional suits and shirts. Men who wear button-down shirts often wear them exclusively. These collars go best with the slightly relaxed four-handed tie knot and can also be worn without a tie.
- Straight point collar – a versatile look that suits men who change their collar type depending on what else they wear. While they wear straight peaks with their dress suits and half-Windsor tie knots, they usually wear button-down collars with their sports coats and khakis. The point collar also works well with the no-tie look.
- Spread collars (from light to European) are the shirt of choice for the fashion-conscious guy who likes to dress with style and flair. They usually come with French cuffs and are best worn with a suit and tie.
Colors and patterns:
- Muted shirt colors and subtle patterns (especially solids) work best with suit jackets and blazers, but aren’t essential.
- The surest way to find a shirt with the perfect color and pattern is to bring the jacket you’ll wear with it (or maybe a cut sample when the pants were hemmed). Nothing works quite like laying out the shirt on the store counter and matching it to the exact fabric you plan to wear. If you’re a tie-wearing guy, now’s also the time to pair up a well-coordinated tie or two to go with each shirt combination.
- Colors and patterns should match your personal style, industry and coloring. Pay attention to the three. A calm, conservative dresser will not be comfortable in a shirt that is too bold. And financial men, who look great in bright, eye-catching colors when dressed casually, should choose more serious color shirts when wearing a suit. While a redhead might look great in olive, khaki, or green on the golf course, and a guy with silver gray hair might find shiny royal blue flattering, these colors are too casual for business shirts worn. with a suit.
- Most shirts designed for dress/work wear are versatile enough to also be worn informally (open collar and/or with the sleeves rolled up) for a casual look. But the reverse doesn’t work: Shirts that are short-sleeved, too brightly colored, with too bold a pattern, or with unique embellishments are “sports shirts” and are too casual for formal wear. They should not be worn with a tie.
- JTraditionally, dress shirt manufacturers produced a full range of sleeve sizes, ranging from 14½/32, 14½/33, 15/32, 15/33, 15/34, and 15/35 all the way up to 17½/36. But, over the years, manufacturers have found a way to cut corners and eliminate the need to produce shirts in all sizes; they call it the “adjustable” sleeve length with an extra button sewn on the cuff of the shirt to tighten or loosen the wrist. They only come in two sleeve lengths – designated 32-33 and 34-35, neither of which is likely to be your exact size. My usual advice is to steer clear of shirts with the double button cuff and shop at stores that still sell “exact sleeve length” shirts. But if you find a two-button shirt that you really like, you can wear it to determine which button suits you best. Cut the other one off and no one will know it’s an adjustable shirt, which some may consider a second rate shirt.
- Of course, shirts with French cuffs (cuffs) are dressier than shirts with buttoned cuffs. They’re perfect with a formal suit, but a bit too formal for khakis.
- It goes without saying that the best dress shirts are 100% cotton. They have a silky smooth feel and are long enough to stay tucked in your pants without being too long to bulge above your waistband.
Surprisingly, a plain white shirt, with an appropriate subtle collar, quality fabric, in the right size is probably the most classic sign of a well-dressed man (that and quality shoes). It is the canvas that fuses the color of the tie and the weft of the suit.
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