Fundamental to the gentleman's wardrobe is the white shirt. What I am discussing here is not the formal evening shirt, but the basic, everyday white dress shirt, which, incidentally, is perfectly acceptable as an evening shirt, but that discussion will be had later.
The most basic and least dressy of the white shirt wardrobe is the button down or polo collar shirt. Introduced by Brooks Brothers in 1896 as the polo collar, this shirt will take you anywhere. Starched and worn with a half-Windsor knotted necktie or a bowtie, this shirt is ready for the most formal of boardroom settings. Similarly it will take you with equal ease to any dinner that does not call for formal wear. On the other hand, in slightly rumpled condition with the sleeves rolled, the same button down will take you to the beach with your khakis or Bermuda shorts. Paired with a pair of clean jeans, and you are ready for a day in the country. Pressed with slacks it is ideal for business casual. Truly, if there is any single garment that will take you truly anywhere, it is the button down shirt.
Most traditionally, these shirts are made from a coarsely woven cotton fabric called Oxford cloth, and, as a result, they are often referred to as Oxford Cloth Shirts, or, more simply, as Oxfords. Ironically, and, in my view, rather sadly, true Oxford is getting harder and harder to come by. It seems to have been supplanted by the more modern and more refined Pinpoint Oxford fabric, which is a lovely fabric – my fondness of the coarser, older-style fabric is purely sentimental.
Collar discussions aside, the dress shirt has the following characteristics:
- Long sleeves – No matter what the Macy's display tells you, there is no such thing as a short sleeved dress shirt.
- Centered box pleat – This lends to the voluminous body of the shirt. Alternatively, if you have your shirts made, you may opt for two knife pleats on each side of the back. When you have a box pleat, look for a locker loop – it is more of a fashion statement than a useful accessory, but it looks very finished and traditional – kind of like a luggage rack on an MGA.
- Breast pocket – Typically found on the wearer's left shirt front. This pocket may have rounded corners on the bottom or angled corners to match the choice on the cuff. Harder to find now, but very nice, is a flapped pocket. This look used to be the signature of L.L. Bean, back when Bean was cool. The total absence of a breast pocket lends to a clean and elegant look, but you lose the convenience of the pocket.
- Cuffs – Plain, barrel cuffs with a single button closure, and a second button, called the gauntlet button, a couple of inches up the sleeve placket. This type of cuff is perfectly acceptable anywhere where you wear a dress shirt. More formally, French cuffs give the wearer an opportunity to wear cufflinks in a day to day environment, but because of the formality of the French cuffs, they are not considered appropriate with button down collars.
- Monograms – Monograms are perfectly acceptable on dress shirts, but keep them understated and well hidden. Plain block initials, about ¼" on the left cuff or the pocket is very traditional. If you keep them in navy blue, they will go with anything you own. As long as the monogram is appropriately small, you can have your monograms in bright colors too. Unusual placement of the monogram is fine, as long as it is out of the way. Beneath the breast pocket is a great location, or centered on the breast pocket. I have seen them centered over the box pleat in back, but that seems a wee bit proud.
- A voluminous cut – Unless you are very thin or exceptionally broad-shouldered with a small waist, you do not want trim cut shirts. The volume of the shirt is part of its luxury.
As mentioned earlier, a button down collar is among the most versatile of collar options on a gentleman's shirt. It is an American innovation, originally to keep the polo players' collars from flapping in their faces without wearing collar pins – this was back in the days when polo was played in jackets and ties! When you wear a button down collar, you should always keep the points buttoned, whether you are wearing a tie or not. In addition to the button down collar, there are several other collar options available which are equally appropriate:
- Spread collar – The spread collar has many names and, short of a formal shirt, it is the most formal of dress shirt collars. It is the appropriate collar to wear with a large, well built full Windsor knot. Other names that you will find spread collars called are Windsor collars, Venetian collars, Eton collars, Varsity collars, etc. Some you will find are sculpted, some are straight cut, some are a wider spread, some less so, but a wide spread collar of whichever style you prefer is great for this niche.
- Plain point collar – The spread collar is, in fact, a variant of the plain point collar. The plain point collar, again, you will find under a number of names, and it is as basic as the button down. If you do not like buttoning your collar points, you may opt for the plain point collar and be equally appropriate. The plain point collar is a tiny bit more formal than a button down, though it can be dressed down equally. It is not quite a sporty as the button down, but it is more traditionally a European choice.
- Pin collars – These were the predecessors of the button down. They have small eyelets in the collar through which to place a collar pin. Avoid these – if you want to wear a collar pin, use the type that does not require that you have a hole in your collar.
- Tab collars – Very elegant, though slightly dated, tab collars, fastened either with a button or a snap keeps your collar trim and in a more erect position. These are the best for wearing four-in-hand knots with.
- Round points – These are available with or without collar pins and/or tabs. Again, they are a bit dated, but if you like to wear white flannels or seersucker suits, you may want one in your wardrobe.
- Hidden button down – This is the newest innovation in the dress shirt scene. It gives you the advantages of a button down collar without looking like a button down collar. Personally, I have no use for this, though it is perfectly acceptable.
- Banded collars – These have the plain collar band where you would attach an old-fashioned detachable collar, but no collar attached. These are fine for very casual wear, but they are not truly dress shirts.
As mentioned before, the plain barrel cuff is the traditional cuff on a dress shirt. The barrel cuff may be made with rounded corners, square corners or mitered corners, generally made to match the cut of the pocket, if the shirt has a breast pocket. Similarly you will find that French, or turn-back, cuffs generally have the same options. A slightly old-fashioned look with French cuffs may also include some sculpting on the cuff. To my eye, the most formal look for French cuffs is the plain, square cut.
The Need for a Formal Shirt
Contrary to what the teenager at the tuxedo rental shop will try to tell you, a neatly pressed and well presented white dress shirt is perfectly appropriate for evening wear. Even when wearing a dinner suit, a tuxedo in American parlance, or a white dinner jacket. A dress shirt is not appropriate with full evening dress, or white tie, but it is perfect with anything short of that. A bowtie may be worn with most plain point collars, but not with the extreme spread collars. If you are wearing a dress shirt for evening wear, avoid wearing the button down – this is the one place where the button down is not at home. Button cuffs are fine here, but French cuffs are better. I will go into formal shirts in a later post, and the options available.
White dress shirts will take you through every activity of your life. They are your friends. If you get good ones, they will wash down and they will get better with age – they will pass from being your dressiest shirts to your workhorse shirts; then from your workhorse shirts to your beachcombing shirts. From there, they will become your Saturday morning lawn mowing shirts, and, when your wife tells you it is time for that shirt to the ragbag, you will be hard pressed to part with it! Choose your shirts well and do not be afraid to spend some money on the good ones – they will be with you longer than some friends.