Virtually every man wears some sort of shirt every day. Whether a business shirt at work, a polo shirt for leisure, an evening shirt at a black tie dinner or even a T-shirt with a pair of jeans, a version of a shirt is almost ever-present on a man’s back. Once, society followed strict rules about what was acceptable, but now things are not so simple. In the 1980s, the TV series Miami Vice introduced the concept of wearing a T-shirt under a suit (a relaxed linen suit admittedly…) as an early version of the “dressing down” trend. “Creative” industries like advertising and graphics have seen even senior executives wearing a fine-gauge polo shirt with tailored jackets for years. Today, once-conventional professions like property and finance have accepted staff wearing open-necked business shirts, without ties. And even at evening events, conventional black ties have replaced black bow ties.
Some things remain constant, however. The first rule of a good shirt is that it must be clean and pressed. Until the 1700s, a man’s shirt was regarded as an undergarment, with usually only the collar being seen. This heritage has implications today. It helps explain why a crisp white shirt is regarded as the epitome of respectability and elegance, and why taking a suit jacket off to reveal a business shirt is still frowned upon in some circles. In its historical form, the shirt had a detachable collar and detachable cuffs. This enabled the visible perts of the shirt to be changed daily (which only a gentlemen could afford to do), while the main garment could be worn for several days. Like the design of the classic lounge suit, the classic shirt design has been with us since the second half of the nineteenth century. Up until the 1870s, shirts lacked buttons and were pulled over the head. The buttoned front made the shirt more versatile. The other great change to benefit modern men was the development of a fixed collar. After the First World War, fixed collars and cuffs became more common as men became used to the convenience of a complete shirt.
The shirt’s history as an undergarment meant that the acceptance of stripes on business shirts was difficult in the late 19th century-stripes might be disguising dirt-and checks were worse. Happily, the rules are somewhat laxer these days. Most men have more shirts in their wardrobe than suits, and the shirts offer plenty of opportunities for a man to express his personality in his outfits.
THE CHOICE OF FABRIC
The first consideration for a shirt is the fabric. Traditionally, linen was the first choice for the shirt-as-an undergarment. It remains a beautiful choice for a business shirt, but it’s more often seen in casual summer shirts these days. Cotton in king when it comes to business shirts-it is comfortable and “breathes” to keep the wearer cool, but at the same time it is usually hard-wearing and can stand up to repeated laundering. Silk is an option that has its followers, although it is not as easy to look after as cotton. On cheaper shirts polyester is blended with cotton, but it is rarely found on high-quality garments. One synthetic fibre addition that has been attracting interest is elastane-Lycra is the best- known brand name for this stretchy fibre. A small percentage can give a shirt more of a body-fitting profile and is sometimes found in even business shirts from high-fashion brands. It is more readily available, however, on casual shirts. While most men would always choose cotton, that is only the start of the conversation as there are many varieties of weave and qualities, such as batiste, poplin, oxford, Sea Island cotton, ribbed twill, pinpoint, herringbone, brushed cotton plus natural blends such as cotton-with-wool, cotton-with-linen and cotton-with-silk.
CLASSIC OR CASUAL?
Business shirts are virtually always made of woven fabric, While many casual shirts are made of knitted fabrics. Knitted fabric is, by its construction, more “stretchy” and so is suitable for polo shirts and the like, The fabric gives the foundation on which the pattern can be built up, the colours and then the many details that give an individual look. Patterns are almost always woven into the fabric of classic business shirts, but casual and semi-casual often are made of printed fabrics. The vibrant patterns of classic Hawaiian shirts are one extreme; the floral patterns of the 60s-style “Liberty print” shirts a more subtle alternative. The rules are most tricky to interpret with business shirts. How far you go is up to your own confidence and sense of style. It is possible to look stunningly stylish in a plain grey suit, a crisp white shirt and a simple black tie (thing of the early James Bond or the minimalist fashion trends of the late 1990s).Similarly, you can look great and offend no one by mixing colours and patterns across your suit, shirt, tie and even pocket handkerchief. The great expert at this confident approach was Edward, Duke of Windsor; who managed five different patterns in one outfit-suit, shirt, tie, pocket hank and a cap!
Most men would be happy not to go to those extremes. To mix patterns successfully, it’s often wise to mix bold patterns with subtle patterns. So, a strong dark-blue chalk-stripe suit could be complemented by an end-on-end weave shirt (where a very subtle effect is achieved by using different colored yarns, say white and blue) and a striking, solid red silk tie (the light-catching sheen of the silk contrasts appropriately with the suit cloth and the shirt fabric).
The most important part of the construction of the business shirt for the wearer is the collar. Once again, like the fabric, the shape, size and dimensions of the collar has to be appropriate to other elements of the outfit. To start with, the collar should be “in balance” with the collar and lapels of the suit. The shape of the collar also determines the size of tie knot that will fit into it. As well as the width of the spread-the distance between the points-there is also the length of the points and the height of the collar itself to consider. Most shirts have only one collar button, but Italian fashion shirts often have two neck buttons because of the height of the collar.
Yet another aspect to consider is the shape of the wearer’s face. Long, narrow, closely-spaced collar tips can exaggerate a long face, or can look uncomfortably at odds with a square visage. A high two-button collar can look inelegant on a man with a short neck. Some retro collar variations are hard to find outside of made-to-measure shops these days. I am particularly vexed that it is hand to locate good 1960s-style tab collars (in which a fabric strip from either tip is buttoned behind the tie knot to pull the collars closer while pushing the tie. knot forward). Some shirts, notably the classic American button-down,offer a bridge between a formal business shirt and a relaxed leisure shirt.
A business shirt also gives a man the chance to wear some jewellery-his cufflinks for example. Always take the opportunity to go for a double-cuff and some cufflinks. Among the other options, short sleeves don’t requite cufflinks-but they ought to be reserved only for casual shirts anyway. If your office is too warm, open a window or roll up your sleeves-you’ll look dynamic (as long as no one minds you taking off your jacket)!
Among other options, breast pockets are rarely seen on top-quality business shirts, but they remain popular in some markets, especially the Far East. And the golden rule on shirts, unless they are obviously for casual wear and have a straight hem, is never wear them outside the trousers.