For this guide, I’m going to ignore T-shirts, polo shirts, and henleys and focus only on traditional button ups. There is already a t-shirt guide on the sidebar that does a great job discussing those, and henleys and polos are fairly casual shirts and, at least in most cases, can be worn just like a t-shirt. I’m also going to skip over fit (shujin has written an amazing fit guide here that covers shirt fit extensively and better than I ever could) and ties (guide on the sidebar here ).
A lot of this stuff is going to seem really basic to some people, but there have been a couple requests for a guide, so here it is.
With that being said, let’s talk button ups.
The material of a button up is important when deciding on which shirt you want to wear. A flannel button up is not going to be fun to wear in the middle of a Georgia summer, while you aren’t going to want to wear linen during a Michigan winter. Button ups are made from a variety of different materials, and this list by no means covers all of them, but these are the main ones.
– Seersucker shirts are a summer staple, particularly in the Southern USA. Seersucker is characterized by a lightweight cotton that is intentionally puckered; this rumpled effect allows easy airflow and makes it one of the coolest fabrics to make clothing out of. Seersucker is normally a casual fabric, and while some people wear them in business casual situations, seersucker shirts are not a traditional dress shirt. You generally don’t wear a tie with a seersucker shirt.
– This is one of the most lightweight fabrics that button ups are made out of. It is very breathable, incredibly smooth and will get softer the more it is worn and washed. One downside to linen is that, because it is so lightweight, it is often times a little bit see through. If this is a problem, you can always wear an undershirt (v-neck of course, don’t want a collar showing). Linen is normally relegated to warm weather wear, but during the summer months people wear it both formally and casually. Ties can work with linen shirts, but it is somewhat rare.
– This is one of the heavier fabrics you can get a shirt made out of. Usually fairly soft, they only get softer the more they are worn. Flannel is almost always worn casually and in cold weather. The large majority of flannel shirts have a plaid pattern to them. You should rarely, if ever, wear a tie with a flannel shirt.
- Oxford Cloth
This is probably the most versatile fabric that men’s shirts are made out of. Oxford cloth is normally a heavy fabric, woven from alternating white and blue yarn. The quintessential ‘all purpose’ shirt, an OCBD should be the go-to shirt for most people. Many people will tell you that you shouldn’t wear a tie with an OCBD, but IMO it is acceptable with a sport coat or blazer. If you plan on wearing a suit, you should go for a shirt that is more formal.
Pinpoint is somewhat of a combination between Oxford cloth and Broadcloth. It utilizes the same weave as oxford cloth, but uses finer yarns like a broadcloth. The result is a fabric that works both formally and casually, and is a great option if you want a shirt that is very versatile. Pinpoints are heavier than broadcloth, but lighter than oxford; they will also appear ‘crisper’ than an oxford cloth. Ties are perfectly acceptable with pinpoint shirts.
There are slight differences between Broadcloth and Poplin, but they are basically the same and many people switch the name interchangeably. This fabric is tightly woven which leads to a very smooth fabric, much smoother than oxford cloth or pinpoint. Because of this, broadcloth is a more formal fabric and is rarely considered casual. Ties are fine with broadcloth.
Twills have a diagonal weave to them and are because of this are often less likely to wrinkle. They are also fairly soft fabric. The weight can vary and it’s a fabric that can work both casually and formally. Ties work with twills.
There are other fabrics that shirts are made out of (Madras, Chambray, etc.) but that should cover the majority of the ones you’ll see.
kjetha posted a great comparison image here
Colors and Matching
A general rule for shirt colors is that the lighter the color, the more formal it is; the darker the color, the more casual. This works for tones as well. White, light blue, light pink, and most pastels are usually business appropriate. Dark blues, reds, maroon, neons, and black should be kept for more casual occasions.
Another general rule to follow is to keep your shirt lighter (or a similar shade) than your pants. Ie: black dress pants and a white shirt or khaki chinos and a pastel blue shirt look good most of the time, khaki chinos and a black shirt can have issues.
Finally, it is often difficult to wear a shirt that is a similar color to your jacket. It can be done, but to be safe always wear a shirt that has some contrast to your jacket (ie. A dark blue shirt may not look good with a navy blazer, but a white or pink shirt will).
Understanding the formality of a shirt is pretty crucial to wearing it correctly. One of the major mistakes people have is misreading the formality of a shirt and attempting to wear it incorrectly; for example, a casual flannel shirt doesn’t go with a suit, and a long-hemmed French cuffed broadcloth can’t be worn with shorts.
The formality of a shirt is sometimes difficult to distinguish, as it is somewhat of a sliding scale across multiple variables. Here’s how it (generally) breaks down. I’ve ignored some of the less common elements of shirts (turnback cuffs, tab collars, etc.) as most people don’t need to worry about those.
Informal ------------------------------------------------ Formal Heavily patterned (large blocks of various colors)-----Solid colored Short Hem (can’t be tucked) --------------Long Hem (must be tucked) Button down collar----------Point/Spread Collar-------------Wing Collar Pocket----------------------------------------------------No Pocket Barrel Cuffs --------------------------------------------French Cuffs
I’ve tried to put these in order of priority and importance when dealing with formality. So a heavily patterned, button down collar shirt with a short hem will always be informal, even if it has no pocket. And a solid shirt with a hem long enough that it must be tucked will almost always be a fairly formal shirt, even if it has barrel cuffs. Obviously there are exceptions to everything, but it’s something to follow as a general guide when judging formality.
Oh, and French cuffs are always very formal. You should not ever wear them without a sport coat at minimum, and usually a jacket.
In many situations, if you are still confused about which shirt to buy, you should focus on the more versatile options. A light blue or white OCBD will be versatile enough to be worn with shorts or in a business casual environment. Simple patterns like candy stripes or windowpanes are good first forays into patterned shirts; stick to one or two colors at first before you start into the multi-colored checks, the more colors and patterns you include the harder it is to match.
Because shirts are made with such a variety of cloth, pattern and styles there is no way I can cover everything in a single guide, but hopefully that gives a starting point for the basics.