Chambray vs. Denim

Chambray vs. Denim

Q. You mentioned chambray shirts a couple of times recently. I gather these are what I consider denim shirts, which I always thought were very informal. Are these now acceptable with ties and even suits?

A. While at first glance there are similarities, chambray and denim shirts are not the same. The differences are in the color, the weave, and the weight of the fabric, and also in the shirt’s level of formality. And, to answer your specific question, yes, chambray can sometimes be matched up with a tie and even a suit, but, no, the more casual denim shirt does not work in the same way.

Every man should really have a versatile chambray shirt (or two) in his wardrobe. It is a masculine piece of clothing, perhaps because of its historic origins as workwear. It is also different enough to break the monotony of the standard white dress shirt. The style is classic enough to be an appropriate choice for many occasions. Its general effect is easygoing and practical, offering a laid-back look that isn’t too serious. Wear it casually with khakis, light or dark chinos, olive pants, dark jeans, or white jeans.

I don’t particularly like it with light jeans, because the fabrics look too similar; so it ends up looking like a near miss, an almost-matched “outfit” mistake. You can wear the shirt alone or layered over a Tee throughout the year. If you want to add a tie, choose something casual like a knit. And if you decide to wear a chambray shirt with a suit, know that it reduces the formality of the suit.

A major difference between the two fabrics: chambray is thinner and softer-to-the touch than denim giving it a lighter feel; it looks like “lightweight denim.” Denim, on the other hand, not only is actually heavier, but also has a “heavy duty” look.

While chambray does closely resemble denim, the truest way to tell them apart is that denim has a front and a back side that look different; it’s darker on the front side, and lighter on the underside. Chambray looks the same on both sides. To get more technical, they are woven differently. Both are cotton fabrics that get their look by weaving colored yarn (usually blue) and white yarn together. Chambray, however, is a plain weave, where the threads alternate evenly. Denim is a twill, where the threads skip a few sets of threads, giving it its unique diagonal pattern.

Of the two, one is not better than the other (you’ll find enthusiasts for both); they’re just different. My own personal feeling is that chambray seems to be a shirt fabric, while denim seems to be more of a jacket fabric. In keeping with this difference, denim shirts usually have two pockets and chambrays have one or none.

The ideal chambray shirt color is not too dark or too faded. A nice, medium blue chambray is a good goal. Still, not all chambray has to be blue (or gray). Try red if you want to mix things up a bit.

As to fit, when buying a chambray shirt, take your regular size. Look for a slim-fit; that way, you’ll end up with a nicely tailored fit that skims across the shoulders and the body, and that is not skin tight. You want an option that works both tucked-in and untucked.

In the hierarchy list of formal-to-casual button-up-the-front shirts, chambray is rather far on the casual side. It is much less formal than broadcloth or Oxford cloth dress shirts, but not as casual as denim, flannel, such over-scaled patterns as large plaids, and all varieties of knit shirts.

Incidentally, you may find some advice that says you can use the two types of shirts interchangeably, but I don’t agree. Chambray is a lighter, more refined fabric that can be upgraded to wear with dressier clothes; denim is too heavy and jeans-like, making it too rugged for anything other than really relaxed dressing.

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