Having previously covered shirting materials and hallmarks of a quality shirt it’s now time to focus more closely on the style options of a dress shirt. In recent years, the shirt has gradually assumed its rightful place in men’s wardrobes. Keeping up with ongoing trends and adapting itself to the shifting contours of menswear, the recent evolution of men’s dress shirts reflects not only advances in production techniques but also the growing needs and demands of a fashion-driven market. What started purely as function, when different shirt styles were suitable to specific occasions, has now given place to aesthetics, with the lines that define style getting harder and harder to define.
In this guide we will address the different shirt styles, including fit, shirt components, suitability to attires and/or occasions and more important, which ones belong in your collection as essentials and those you should stay away from.
The Proper Fit of a Shirt
Arguably the most striking feature of a shirt, fit is one of the most influential traits in defining style. Simply put, it’s inconceivable to address style if the shirt is ill-fitting, so make sure to follow our previous recommendations on attaining a proper fit.
Again, the question remains whether to choose ready-to-wear options or made-to-measure alternatives, but independent of your decision, the shirt will portray a characteristic aesthetic that suits your taste. Before I list the most common fits within today’s market offerings, I would like to stress that a “perfect fit” is not a concept equally perceived by everyone: what I envision as perfect may very well differ from your idea of perfection and although there are rules and critical aspects to evaluate fit, it depends greatly on personal taste.
The Classic Fit
Perpetuating the original essence of the shirt, the classic fit aims to maintain the traditional tailoring silhouette, allowing a comfortable feel with a boxier shape. It provides great mobility and features two vents on the back, usually located near the yoke. This is the go-to choice for those with a more classic style who favor comfort over fashion.
A step forth towards a more fashionable approach, the slim fit has been gaining adepts and recognition with a younger audience, more self conscious about their image and aiming to portray a trendier look.
Accentuated back darts and a higher armhole stance allow for a shaped look that sits closer to the body, without being skin tight; although it’s commonly associated with casual or fashion shirts, an appropriate choice of fabric may allow for more formal alternatives as well. Bear in mind that depending on your body type, this fit might pose some issues as it’s more appropriate for slim individuals, so if you’re on the bulkier side you might want to skip this one — otherwise, go for a stretch fabric to ensure the best fit and comfort.
The Modern/Contemporary Fit
Probably the most popular alternative on the list, this fit represents the evolution of the shirt pattern to reflect (as the name states), a more contemporary feel. This option sits in between the classic and the slim fit, providing the best of both worlds in what regards comfort and style. A slightly tapered silhouette on the waist, usually making use of small back darts, ensures the success of this much sought all rounder.
Super Slim/Skinny Fit
In my opinion, unless you have a very particular body type that justifies it, super skinny fits should be avoided all together. Skintight shirts are not a flattering alternative for anyone and feel a bit like sailing into uncharted waters — just stay away from them. In this case, not even stretch can save you from looking like you’re about to burst and can hardly move or breathe.
The Shirt Body
Moving on to the shirt’s body and components, it is virtually impossible to cover each and every alternative, so I’ll try to address the most important elements and their commonly found variations. It’s important to keep in mind that the subject of style is very personal and dependent on one’s taste, and as such, this article is meant to work as a guide, a reference of how different variations influence the way a shirt is perceived.
Whether you’re looking for ready-to-wear alternatives or having a bespoke shirt made especially for you, these guidelines apply to most cases where the shirt’s original essence is kept in mind.
When it comes to fronts, leaving plackets aside, most shirts feature a plain front without any additional elements other than chest pockets. While classic dress shirts may feature a chest pocket for functional aspects, I would advise leaving other options to more casual alternatives; two chest pockets should be kept strictly for relaxed alternatives such as safari, military or western shirts.
However, if you’re considering a shirt for an event with a certain formality, be it black-tie or a wedding, it is usual for shirts to present a bib-like contrast in the front. This so-called “tuxedo shirt” is not meant for everyday wear and should be saved for the occasion. The contrasting fabrics on the bib are usually heavier and feature a pleated or pique effect. This type of detailed front, when taken out of the original context, has also enabled designers to create bold statement pieces making use of contrasting elements of both color and pattern.
One of the main elements of the shirt’s front, the placket automatically draws attention to itself due to the closure alternatives and button location, especially if the latter are contrasting or made of an exquisite material, like mother of pearl. From formal to casual, there are three traditional placket versions which have then suffered variations to reflect more unique takes.
Traditional Placket – also known as the “American placket” due to the strong influence and representation of American style, this is the most conventional style of all. Consisting of a separated piece of fabric attached to the shirt front, either by being folded or stitched, this version allows for added stability and a symmetrical aesthetic. This type of placket is still found on classic dress shirts, although it portrays a somewhat dated aesthetic and is now commonly found on more casual interpretations such as oxford cloth button downs. Both on traditional and French plackets, the shirt buttons are visible, making them an important element to be taken into account.
The 3/4 Placket – a variation on the above mentioned, this version has a shorter length, ending before the last button and usually in a pointed shape. It is commonly seen on more relaxed shirts or popovers, adding an interesting visual appeal to an otherwise common placket.
The French Placket – a more polished alternative than the traditional, the French placket is achieved by folding the fabric over itself inwards. This technique allows a clean shirt front without any stitching, which as the name states, is associated with a more European aesthetic and the go-to choice for a “sprezzy” Italian look. The French placket is the perfect in-between alternative that easily adapts to classic, fashion or casual shirts.
The Fly Front Placket – originally associated with evening or tuxedo shirts, this placket features an extra flap of fabric which conceals the button row and provides a sharper and cleaner looking shirt than all of the above alternatives. As with so many other components, the fly front has been embraced by many designers as a minimalistic fashion statement, thus transitioning from ceremonial to fashionable.
Back of the Shirt
There’s not much to be said about the back of a shirt, apart from the aforementioned pleats or darts, which are not merely aesthetic but help dictate the shirt’s the fit and silhouette. Shoulder or center back pleats have more of an aesthetic than functional effect, as they usually do not translate into considerable alterations on the shape of the shirt. Back darts, however, depending on their width, can produce a pronounced cinched effect on the waist that makes it slimmer and more contemporary. As with most details on the shirt, it all comes down to personal taste, although achieving a slim silhouette without resorting to back pleats might not be the easiest of tasks.
There are two other details on a shirt’s back that may be worth mentioning: the split back yoke can elevate the shirt to a higher standard, especially if we consider striped patterns and a perfect 45-degree angle; the other, the hanger loop, a small strap of fabric stitched on the back yoke, is a trademark of Americana style and commonly found on casual oxford button downs where its original function was to hang the shirt.
One of the most style-defining elements on any shirt, collars have evolved into a plethora of options that is almost absurd, to the point where some models are named after the combination of 3 or 4 previous versions: “extreme-cutaway-hidden-button-down” anyone? What used to consist of a “simple” choice of length and tie gap, has now been made much more complex due to an ever-growing selection that seems to bring to life every possible option in the book (especially when it comes to made-to-measure). Add to that the variety of available interlinings, both fused and non-fused, and we end up with a variety of current offerings which is virtually unlimited.
While I can understand that a brand may want to portray a trademark collar as a means of differentiation within the market, the result of accommodating consumers’ demands and designers’ creativity has made choosing a collar an overwhelming task for many men. However, and as experience has proven time and time again, quantity is not quality and as far as I’m concerned, one can build a consistent and complete wardrobe while making use of only 7 essential models: spread, button-down, club, classic, tuxedo, Mao and the small collar.
Of course, there are numerous variations in size and shape to all these collars and while some people prefer to have the exact collar style for all their shirts, others want to mix it up and choose different collars for different occasions. Time has shown that classic collars are neither huge nor tiny so if you want to invest in a timeless wardrobe, don’t fall for the super spread collar and go with a semi spread, or just take a regular button down rather than a small one. At the same time, if you already have 100 shirts in your closet and you want something else, go and experiment by all means. On bespoke shirts, you should always have the option to determine the size of the collar no matter what style you choose. That alone will offer you so many variations that there is a sheer endless number of collar styles.
The basic collars are:
- Spread collar – by far the most popular contemporary model and a go-to choice for both casual and classic shirts. The beauty of it relies in the versatility, working perfectly with or without a tie;
- Button-down collar – apart from a couple of exceptions, all my oxford shirts feature a button-down collar. Traditionally not really worn with ties, many men now combine it with a tie — it’s all up to you;
- Classic collar – the timeless pointed collar with the right tie gap is mandatory in every man’s wardrobe;
- Club collar – a revivalist model with rounded corners that picks up the Mad Men/Boardwalk Empire aesthetic. A different spread can create a very different look and it looks great with a collar pin. You can buy them here;
- Small collar – a smaller and more modern approach to the classic collar, this model seamlessly works with a variety of shirts from denim to oxfords and even contemporary classics, but it is often difficult to wear it with a tie or bow tie;
- Evening collar – Traditionally, evening collars were detachable, starched and stiff. Today, most tuxedo shirts feature an attached wing collar that is often too small and floppy. Either wear a turn-down collar with your tuxedo or go with a real detachable collar; for white tie, only wear a detachable collar;
- Mao collar – this standup collar is usually only worn in combination with a Nehru jacket, often by conductors or artists.
Shirt Cuff Styles
When it comes to cuffs, the main decision is whether to go for a barrel or French cuff. Traditionally, French cuffs are dressier and more formal, allowing men to sport one of the quintessential pieces of jewelry in men’s style: cufflinks. This accessory alone works as a personal statement and means of self expression, which has brought French cuffs into a more mainstream market, not exclusive to formal shirts. To top it off, Italian Sprezzatura has found in these cuffs yet another way to break conventional rules, by wearing them unfastened and often folding them over the jacket sleeve.
Barrel cuffs on the other hand, are the everyday choice for most men and the most commonly found alternative. With a variety of shapes and designs, ranging from faceted, rounded, straight, etc. up to the number of buttons, barrel cuffs provide a wide range of choices to the wearer, with a much more practical approach than their French counterparts. One critical aspect to bear in mind when considering the type of cuff to choose is its height: traditional (outdated) cuffs usually sit between 7.5/8cm, whereas contemporary classic cuffs are about 6 cm and anything less is on the more fashionable side.
Although cuffs are a crucial component by themselves in what regards style, they maintain a close relation with collars: depending on the combinations of cuffs and collar, the outcome may be anything from fashion forward, relaxed, classic or even formal, with a thin line separating bizarre from perfection. Overall, there are probably hundreds of variations with one, two or three buttons or a mix of cuff shapes like the James Bond Cuff.
If you wear a lot of jackets with shirts from different manufacturers or tailors, you’ll notice that the shirt sleeve length and the amount of cuff you show varies depending on the cut of the armholes of the shirt and the jacket. In order to prevent that, you can have 6 or 8 buttonholes instead of the usual 4 on a French cuff, so you can easily adjust the shirt length to the jacket. In England, they sometimes comes with 6 buttonholes by default and it can be a very useful feature indeed.
The bottom hem can also say much about a shirt’s style, namely if it leans toward the more classic or relaxed end of the spectrum. A classic shirt made to be worn tucked in, say with a tie and suit, must present a tail-shaped bottom hem that allows the shirt to remain in place throughout the course of the day. Although tails have gotten shorter in recent years, the design must still ensure the functional aspect, which makes the ratio between the lower and higher ends of the tail a critical variable.
If you are looking for a casual shirt that you can wear untucked on a more relaxed occasion, straight hems are the way to go. Unlike the tail-shaped version, straight hems make the shirt much more prone to becoming untucked on its own as a result of natural body movements, so caution is advised when choosing the length: too short will result in a shirt that can’t be tucked in, whereas too long will just look ridiculous if worn untucked.
Contrasting Shirt Elements
Contrasting collar undersides, shirt plackets or cuff linings are one of those details that can make or break a shirt. For anything other than a casual shirt, they are not really suitable at all but at the end of the day it depends on your style. Use them wisely and they can elevate the shirt to a new standard, go overboard and you may end up looking clownish at best.
In my opinion, contrasts work best when used with subtlety and when not immediately visible, sitting in the background while the rest of the shirt shines, until it’s time for them to make a memorable appearance. Mind you, shirting contrasts are not only limited to fabrics: details such as buttons, buttonholes or threads, although in a much smaller scale, can have an enormous impact on the global aesthetic.
Personally, I try to keep fabric contrasts as simple as possible, sticking to the traditional alternatives such as a contrasting white collar or cuffs on a classic shirt or at most, a contrasting fabric on the inside of the cuff. Even though I’m not the biggest fan of contrasting elements on a shirt, some details such as a contrasting color on the ascolite thread or on selected buttonholes can make a world of a difference and become a personal trademark.
During the course of the series we’ve delved into the shirting universe, reviewing not only the different fabric options available, but also the production stages and manufacturing processes that result in a high-end shirt. Looking back at previous entries, it seems evident that the defining traits of a shirt’s style are a combination of all the elements mentioned up until now: while the particular style options listed above are crucial to the shirt’s aesthetic, the very choice of fabric (say, poplin or oxford) or type of construction (single needle or twin needle, for example) already dictate what the end result will be.
The intricacies of personal style and unconventional approaches to traditional rules, despite being the driving forces behind most changes in the #menswear panorama, also make it that much harder to define what belongs where and when. That being said, I hope that this article has been of help in establishing some of the guidelines that define a shirt’s style and hopefully provide some sound advice for your future purchases.
What styles or components do you look for when purchasing a shirt? Please let us know in the comments below.