Finding a suit-able shirt

Finding a suit-able shirt

Q. Most of the business shirts I have do not seem quite professional enough to wear with a suit or sport coat. What do I need to look for to be sure I have something suitable (and suit-able) that fits right, shopping either online or in a brick-and-mortar store?

A. When it comes to dress shirt shopping, you have made a wise first decision by being open to going into a clothing store, rather than trying to find something online. And while you are deciding to do so, my strong suggestion is to choose an upscale, fine quality store, where the sales people are more likely to be knowledgeable.

The first advantage is that the salesperson will begin by measuring you. Over the years that I have worked with men’s clothing, I’ve heard many men say, “I’ve worn a 15½, 33 shirt all my life,” when what they may actually now need is a size 16 neck, 34 sleeve. Even the most in-shape man (in fact, especially the more athletic man) will change sizes over his lifetime. More often than one might expect, men are wearing the wrong size shirt.    

There is more to shirt shopping than merely knowing one’s correct size. Shirts come in three different types of fit, at least three different types of collar, two types of cuff, many colors and patterns, and a wide variety of fabrics. A fine shop will have all of these and will show you what they think works well. It definitely helps to know the choices before you arrive, and they relate directly to your question of what works best with suits and jackets.

Three different fits: for many men, this is the most important element.1.      Traditional or classic (full-cut) — These are best for Old School gentleman types who enjoy being quietly well-dressed, but who do not want to stand out from the crowd. 2.      Tailored (medium-full) — Choose these for their versatility. They work for the man who cares about clothes, but does not want to appear too fashion-involved.                          3.      Slim — Think the younger, hip guy who likes the modern silhouette. He is fashion-forward, in-shape, and proud of it.

Three types of collar: this is closely tied to one’s personality and background.

  1. Button-down collar – an Ivy League, academic, preppy look that goes with tradition suits and shirts. Men who wear button-down collar shirts often wear them exclusively. These collars go best with the slightly casual four-in-hand necktie knot and can also be worn without a tie. 
  2. Straight-point collar – a versatile look that works for men who change their collar type depending upon what else they are wearing. While they wear straight-points with their dressy suits and half-Windsor necktie knots, they usually wear button-down collars with their sport coats and khakis. The point collar also works well with the no-tie look.    
  3. Spread collars (from slight to Euro-wide spread) – are the shirts of choice for the fashion-aware 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:

  1. Muted shirt colors and subtle patterns (especially solids) work best with suit jackets and blazers, but are not essential. 
  2. The surest way to find a shirt with the perfect color and pattern is to bring along the jacket you will be wearing with it (or perhaps a swatch cut when the trousers were hemmed). Nothing works as well as laying the shirt out on the store’s counter and pairing it with the exact fabric you plan to wear. If you are a guy who wears neckties, this is also the moment to match up a well-coordinated tie or two to go with each shirt combination.  
  3. Colors and patterns should be in keeping with your personal style, with your industry, and with your coloring. Pay attention to all three. A quiet, conservative dresser will not be comfortable in a shirt that is too bold. And men in the financial industry, who look good in bright eye-catching colors when dressed casually, should choose shirts in more serious colors when wearing a suit. Even though a redhead may look good in olive, khaki, or green on the golf course and a guy with silvery gray hair may find bright royal blue to be flattering, these colors are too casual for business shirts worn with a suit. 

Additional notes:

  1. Most shirts designed for dress/business wear are versatile enough to also be worn informally (open-at-the-neck and/or with the sleeves turned up) for a casual look. But the opposite does not work: shirts with short sleeves, in a too-bright color, a too-bold pattern, or with unique embellishments are “sport shirts” and are too casual for formal dressing. They should not be worn with a tie.  
  2. Traditionally, dress shirt manufacturers produced a full range of sleeve sizes, running from 14½/32, 14½/33, 15/32, 15/33, 15/34, and 15/35 on up to 17½/36. But, over the years, manufacturers came up with a way to cut corners and eliminate the need to produce shirts in every size; they call it the “adjustable” sleeve length with an extra button sewn on the shirt cuff to tighten or loosen the cuff. They make just two sleeve lengths – designated 32-33 and 34-35, neither of which is likely to be precisely your size. My usual advice is to stay away from shirts with the double-button cuff and shop in stores that still sell “exact sleeve length” shirts. But if you  find a two-button-cuff shirt that you like a lot, you can wear it to determine which is the correct button for you. Cut off the other one and no one will know it is an adjustable shirt, which some may consider a second-rate shirt.
  3. Of course, French-cuffed (cuff-linked) shirts are dressier than shirts with button (barrel) cuffs. They are perfect with a dressy suit, but a bit too formal for khakis. 
  4. It should go without saying that the best dress shirts are 100% cotton. They have a smooth silky feel, and are long enough to stay neatly tucked into your trousers without being so long that they balloon out over your beltline.

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 makes the color of the tie and the frame of the suit come together.

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