A Brief History Of Men’s Shirts
It’s said that shirts first got their collars around the year 1300. They were built into the shirts themselves and came up as high as the jaw and opened outwardly in a riffled pattern.
As you might imagine, this was excess cloth at the time. Given its expense and lack of utility outside the battlefield, it was mostly worn by noblemen but was also built into soldiers’ armour at the time.
Up through the nineteenth century, white linen dress shirts were considered to be the epitome of male elegance. All shirts at the time were made from linen, and this term has carried over into the tailoring world. For example, it’s important to show “half an inch of linen” below your jacket sleeve when suited.
This is also where we get the term “white collar”, which denotes office and administrative professions that require an education. They could afford to wear white collars because they didn’t dirty them by doing manual labour.
At a time when most of the population lived in poverty, wearing white indicated success, a “good” family background, and gentility.
Where Do White Collars & Cuffs Come From?
Over the course of the years, it has become fashionable for men to wear dress shirts with different coloured collars and cuffs.
You’ve like realised that collars and cuffs tend to be the first parts of a shirt to show wear and eventually break down. Meanwhile, the body of the shirt could last nearly forever.
During the 19th Century, it became common for the collars and cuffs to be detachable. As a result, laundering the most worn areas became easy and helped further maintain the lifespan of the shirt’s body.
In fact, as higher classes would change their outfits several times during the day, a single shirt would be worn several days before being cleaned. As for the collars and cuffs, they were typically cleaned every day.
More affluent men of the period would have their collars and cuffs heavily starched. This resulted in a brilliant shine as well as a hardened material that didn’t crease. Similarly, it allowed the shirts to endure far longer.
This style has recently been popularised thanks to period dramas like Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders.
It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that shirt collars were attached to their shirts as they are nowadays. As mentioned above, Van Heusen was one of the brands that helped introduce this with their soft folding shirt collar.
White was the collar of choice for a number of reasons. Firstly, white collar indicated status as we described above. Secondly, starch is white so it wouldn’t stain the collars. Finally, even in those days, people knew that white went with anything!
Where To Buy Shirts With Different Colour Collars & Cuffs
Shirts with contrasting collars and cuffs are still widely available and most of the brands above have their own versions. Alternatively, Black Lapel and Indochino include this as a free customisation option so you can have it done with any of the shirt fabrics.
Meanwhile, collarless shirts or “tunics” are a little rarer but not impossible to find. As these are still used by both priests and barristers in the UK, a number of Jermyn Street brands produce them. For instance, TM Lewin sold these shirts at very competitive prices.
However, its future is uncertain so the style is a little more challenging to find today. Meanwhile, Brooks Brothers launched a limited edition tunic shirt to celebrate its 200th anniversary!
As for detachable or “stiff collars”, you can often find vintage ones on Etsy or eBay. We have a number of these, which we thrifted ourselves! Alternatively, Darcy Clothing specialises in period garments and has a plethora of affordable styles. Some are even machine washable so they don’t need laundering!
Finally, when it comes to starching collars, very few launderers still do this. However, we have often used the Barker Group’s mail laundry service with a lot of success. It costs just over £2.50 per collar and if you want extra shine, you can ask for their Toastmaster service, which is a free option.
Additionally, click here to benefit from a £40 complimentary laundry collection so you can test them for free!
How Formal Is A Dress Shirt?
Shirts play a large role in determining an outfit’s level of formality. We can easily break this down into what we’d like to refer to as the three Cs: colour, collars, and cuffs.
Firstly, collar formality is determined by two main factors: its firmness and its “spread,” which refers to the distance between the collar points. Firmer collars are more formal than softer ones, and wider spread collars are more formal than those with minimal spread (sometimes referred to as a “point” collar).
Similarly, collar styles each have their own levels of formality. For instance, a button-down collar is very casual. Meanwhile, a round collar is something of a grey area. Being a heritage style, it denotes class. However, it was historically worn by workers and schoolboys!
Secondly, colour plays an important role. This is apparent when considering black or white-tie events. In both cases, white is the colour of choice, which indicates that it’s the most formal colour for shirts.
The same rules apply in a professional environment. We wear white shirts to job interviews, and it’s rare that we see a sitting President in anything but a white shirt.
As shirt colours get darker or begin to include patterns, they get incrementally more casual. You can complicate things even further by referring to the twill or weave of the shirt, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Finally, cuffs can indicate formality or a lack thereof. A barrel cuff is not necessarily casual and they can be worn with a suit. Yet, aside from short-sleeves, they’re the least formal option. Meanwhile, cuffs that require cufflinks -single and double- are definitely more formal.
As an aside, the single cuff wing collar shirt in white is exclusive to white tie and is thus the most formal shirt of all. However, double or “French cuffs” are usually considered to be the most formal in most typical settings.
Clothing is an art as much as it is a science. Therefore, it’s important to remember that a shirt is the sum of its parts, which don’t exist in a vacuum.
For instance, a brightly-coloured, boldly-patterned shirt is casual. However, if it features a spread collar and double cuffs on it, it’s formality is somewhat increased. Conversely, a plain white shirt would typically be quite formal until you slap a button-down collar and two-button barrel cuffs on it.
Components of A Dress Shirt
As described above, all men’s dress shirts have two major components, which are the collars and cuffs. Since you now know a little about how they affect formality, let’s explore the various different styles.
Different Dress Shirt Collar Styles
As we mentioned above, a dress shirt’s collar is key formality indicator. Below is a graphic representation of the most common dress shirt collars that men see:
There’s quite a bit to discuss as it relates to shirt collars, including how to make collars work with your face shape (you can identify yours with our face shape guide). To that end, we’ve created a guide to shirt collars that we invite you to take a look at.
Different Dress Shirt Cuff Styles
As explained above, shirt’s cuffs are another component that helps establish your level of desired formality. The three main styles for men’s dress shirts are barrel, single, and double/French. All of these are represented graphically below:
Like collars, there’s much to know about shirt cuffs. As such, we created a separate page on dress shirt cuffs with all the information you need.
How Do Dress Shirt Sizes Work?
You’ve probably seen terms like Slim Fit, Athletic Cut, and Tailored Fit in addition to S, M, L, XL, and even numerical measurements. It’s confusing, and there’s good news and bad news as it relates to this. We’ll start with the bad news.
The bad news is that there’s not a whole lot of standardisation around men’s shirt sizing outside of using actual numerical measurements. The good news is that we can help you navigate this minefield.
Note that all the information below is specifically for for off-the-rack shirts. When buying made-to-measure shirts, about 15 measurements will be taken off of your body and used to construct a shirt that fits perfectly. Seeing as not all of us have a tailor nearby to do this, we’ve included the info below to help you as you shop in a store or online.
Numerical Shirt Sizes
More traditional and / or higher-end men’s clothiers will use a numerical sizing system for their shirts. There are two measurements that are used:
- Collar (ranging from as small as 13″ to as large as 20″)
- Sleeve Length (ranging from 30″ at the short end to 38″ at the long end)
Most of the Jermyn Street brands listed above will produce shirts with different collar and sleeve lengths, which is convenient for getting the right fit.
Meanwhile, the majority of brands will only base it off collar size. The upside to this system is that numbers are numbers, and if you know that your neck measures at 15.5″, you can pick up a 15.5″ collar shirt and know it will more-or-less fit.
The downside is that our arms don’t necessarily get longer as our necks get larger, nor do our bodies enlarge. If you have an atypical body type, then you might want to opt for a Jermyn Street brand at the very least. Alternatively, you can instead order made-to-measure shirts from either Indochino or Black Lapel.
Many low-to-mid-tier retailers will sell dress shirts sized like t-shirts or sweaters: Small, Medium, Large, Extra Large, and so on. Any brand’s website will often provide a sizing guide wherein these sizes correspond to collar, sleeve, and even chest sizes.
This is great if you’re loyal to one brand whose shirts you love. However, there’s literally no standardisation for this across brands, and while you might be a Medium at XYZ store, you could easily be a large at ABC Company.
While this approximate fitting would probably be fine for some casual shirts and garments, we believe that it isn’t quite appropriate for dress shirts. Therefore, try to opt for brands like the ones we’ve featured in this guide for a better fit.
Shirt Cuts (& Your Body Type)
Further muddying the waters is off-the-rack retailers’ terminology around shirt cuts. Some terms you’ll typically see are listed below, and comparing them to your body type can actually be quite helpful (we’ll get into that below). For now, that a rule of thumb
- Extra Slim
- Tailored Fit
While all of us understand what the words “classic” or “slim” mean in the abstract, these terms only mean something in relation to the company’s other offerings. Slim can only be slim in relation to something like “Standard” or “Classic.”
The two terms that we find most useful are Tall (meaning that body and sleeve length have been increased for a given size, but not the overall body size) and Athletic (chest and shoulders are cut larger, but waist is still tapered).
To make things even more confusing, some brands use entirely arbitrary terms in lieu of words that might actually describe how a shirt fit. Though they frequently change, J.Crew has a “Ludlow” and “Crosby” fit, and Banana Republic has a “Camden” and “Grant” fit as of this writing.
There is, however, a benefit to all this, which is that you can use your body type to guide you in terms of which cuts will work for you and which ones won’t. First, if you don’t know your body type, take a minute and determine yours using our body type guide.
If, for example, you’re tall and thin, look for brands that offer tall sizes for shirts. However, if you’re a thin guy, you’re going to want to see the words “Tailored” or “Slim” in the cut of your shirts. Otherwise, heavier guys should consider adjectives like “Standard,” “Classic,” or “Traditional”.
How A Dress Shirt Should Fit
Regardless of how you buy a shirt or what size the tag says it is, there are five main components to dress shirt fit: body size, body length, collar, sleeves, and cuffs. For an in-depth analysis of proper shirt fit complete with custom graphics, we invite you to see our page on shirt fit.