For the bulk of the nineteenth century, a gentleman's dress shirt was white. Colors and patterns in shirts were the domain of the working man, something to brighten his life of browns and tans. The gay nineties changed many traditions of the Victorian era, and by the end of the century, gentlemen's dress shirts were available in stripes and patterns of tremendous variety. Innovation continued through the 1920s, and then, with the onslaught of the depression, as with so many things, innovation ceased.
But that is alright. The thirty-five years of shirt creativity left gentlemen with a wide variety of colors and patterns. There are any number of stripes and colors available to the modern gentleman that are perfectly acceptable.
For the most formal of wear, with the navy braided pinstripe or the Oxford grey chalk-stripe, you will want to stick with white shirts. White-on-white patterned shirts may be worn with the most formal suits, and they make subtle and elegant statements. Be aware of the pattern of your suiting and the necktie that you choose when opting for white-on-white patterns, as they can contribute to the busyness of the overall presentation.
Striped shirts of many hues are extremely handsome, but they are best worn with solid color suits, as opposed to striped suits. Striped shirts also play well with chinos and solid colored slacks excellently, as they do with blue blazers. They lend dash, style and elegance to your "intermediate" wardrobe – that which falls between an open collar and khakis and the formal suit.
Down the ladder of formality from the white-on-white and the striped shirts is a selection of pastel colored shirts. Most traditionally made of Oxford cloth and with button down collars, in pale blue, yellow and pink these are staples of the wardrobe. Again, they go excellently with khakis and blue blazers or solid blue suits. These can even be used to dress down a more formal suit. They work well with a variety of neckties. Beyond the most traditional colors, just about any pastel such as peach or apricot, pale greens and a variety of light blues work excellently. For the past twenty years a darker shade of blue, usually called French blue, has become fundamental – it is excellent and, like the white-on-white shirt, it tends to lend a bit of elegance to an otherwise more casual ensemble. Do not go darker in tone than the French blue – navy, burgundy and black shirt are great at the bowling alley, but not in the form of a dress shirt.
While colored shirts are most traditional in the U.S. with button down collars, they are perfectly appropriate with plain point or spread collars as well. Most traditionally they have plain barrel cuffs, though they are excellent with French cuffs as well when worn with non-button down collars.
In the spring and summer months, white collars and cuffs are acceptable on pastel and striped body shirts – especially with seersucker, poplin and pincord suits and, of course, with blue blazers.