The classic white dress shirt is the most versatile item in any modern gentleman’s wardrobe. No item can be worn casually at the weekend with jeans and a cardigan, with your suit to work and with to an upmarket black-tie event. A word of caution, just because the classic white dress shirt is so versatile, not all white shirts have been created equally. Varying quality of cut, fabric construction and buttons will make a big difference to your overall look so buy wisely. Here is my guide to help you. Many of the tips you can use when buying any shirt.
What to choose…
What is the best fabric for shirts?
Look for two-fold cotton. Not only is it smoother and more luxurious, but it is also harder wearing so it will look better for longer. It is also thicker which makes it more versatile than the ultra thin cheaper alternatives and is less likely to go see-thru if you are unexpectedly caught in a shower of rain.
What buttons for shirts?
Plastic buttons will ruin even the best quality shirts. Not only do they look cheap, but they are prone to cracking and age quickly becoming brittle and losing their colour after only a handful of washes. Mother-of-pearl buttons are a discreet sign of quality. People might not notice if you have them, but they will always notice if you don’t.
What’s in a shirt collar?
Fused collars (collars reinforced with a stiff interfacing that bonded to the collar with glue, often using a hot press machine) will bubble under ironing as the glue melts when hot and comes away from the fabric. This will drastically reduce the lifespan of the shirt. The upside is, that unless you are familiar with starching your collar, you likely to have a crisper, sharper, straighter collar than with a sewn collar.
Sewn collars are the traditional method for creating collars by hand. It is intricate, time consuming and highly skilled work so is reserved for the very best shirts. It gives a very pleasing natural roll to the collar, the downside is you will struggle to keep the collar extra crisp all day if wearing to the office.
Collar stays are essential to ensure your collar points are sharp, but so many high street shirts don’t have any provision for them. Ensure your shirts have do, but remember to take them out every time you launder your shirts or the stays will get bent. Worse still, if you are still using the plastic collar stays and you forget to take them out, they will melt and likely damage your collar. Throw the old plastic stays away, invest in some quality metal ones and get into the habit of taking them out when you take off your shirt.
Quality of stitching
One tell-tale sign of a quality shirt is the rate of stitches per inch (SPI) used in its construction. The average shirt has between 13 to 15 SPI. A shirt of the highest quality will be tailored with 20 to 25 SPI. Look for a minimum of 18 SPI in any shirt you buy. It’s easy to check, just remember to bring your glasses!
Choosing shirt cuffs
French or double cuffs seem to be the standard in Europe for quality shirts, while the US still favours single cuffs. Even though my own preference is towards the splendor of the double cuff with a pair of trendy cufflinks or chain, it is actually the single cuff that is the more versatile. Anyone who has tried to wear a cardigan or jumper over a double cuff shirt and struggled with odd bulging wrists will tell you they would have preferred a single cuff. Trust me I speak from experience having seen too many guys trying to be too stylish.
How to wear…
Wearing to the office
This is the natural home of the white dress shirt, so there should be little to say here. Stick with the classic suit colours and you will always look professional. Avoid wearing with the recent trend of light, pastel coloured suits, especially if you have pale skin. Otherwise you will look washed out and sickly or a lost extra from Miami Vice.
Here almost anything goes, but this really is where a single cuff comes into its own. With jeans, sweater and a pair of loafers and you have the perfect everyday wear. Swap the jumper for a trendy cardigan and put on an Ascot tie and you have really smartened yourself up for afternoon drinks. Swap the loafers for brown brogues, and put on a navy sports jacket and you can go out for the evening. One shirt, subtle variations, three very different events. I said it was versatile.
I know there is the tendency to to wear wing tip collars (where the collar is drastically cut away and the points of the collar stick out over the bow tie like wings), but search the internet for iconic tuxedo pictures and the fast majority will have a traditional collars. If your jacket is fastened as it should be, who’s to know it isn’t pleated?
“When I put on a white shirt, it’s the same feeling as getting into crisp, fresh sheets at night. I just feel good.” – Tom Ford
If you are just starting to build your wardrobe, or need some extra flexibility, I would recommend you take another look at the clean and crisp, white dress shirt. Tom Ford’s iconic trademark look is a classic cut black suit and a quality white shirt. No other item in your wardrobe could be worn in so many ways.