The best men’s dress shirts this year
Thursday 15 April 2021
By Brad Mclennan, Designer
Having a few good dress shirts in your wardrobe is a non-negotiable. You’ll always find an excuse to wear these guys. Weddings, parties, black tie events, work functions, cheeky red carpet invitations. The not-so-humble dress shirt is a life-saver in these occasions. And to be honest, if you nail the shirt selection, you might not even need a suit jacket—especially in the summer months. A lot of guys are just rocking a dress shirt, slacks and tie these days. Of course, like all formalwear, your dress shirt comes down to two things: quality and fit. Get those right and you’re halfway home.
We’ve already written a full-on guide to men’s shirts, but this article will be a little more…tailored. This is our ultimate guide to dress shirts. Button up.
What is a dress shirt?
The term ‘dress shirt’ can be a little confusing. For the sake of this article, we’re talking about what the Americans call ‘formal shirts’. That’s basically anything that’s not your typical business shirt. Dress shirts are usually solid white or cream, but as you’ll see, you can go crazy on patterns and colours, too. They usually have a wing, spread or peak collar, and the really fancy ones (like the tuxedo shirts) will probably have a tail on the bottom hem (translation: the back bit is longer than the front bit). These are your special occasion shirts—definitely not for everyday wear.
Components of a dress shirt
Before we dive into the different kinds of dress shirts, it’s worth learning the different bits of dress shirts. No-one’s expecting you to actually sew one of these things, but it helps you look smart in front of your tailor.
Dress shirts actually come in all sorts of collars, but tuxedo shirts will usually have a full-on wing collar. Other dress shirts might have button-down collars, spread collars or tab collars. It’s all down to personal style. One thing to note is the difference between ‘fused’ and ‘stitched’ collars. Fused collars are made by glueing layers of fabric together, while stitched collars are obviously stitched by hand. You’ll pay a bit more for stitched, but again, it’s down to personal taste.
The iconic dress shirt cuffs are French cuffs, which attach via cufflinks. This is your standard James Bond kind of dress shirt. Most modern dress shirts won’t go that far, though. It’s totally fine to rock barrel cuffs to your cousin’s wedding. The real thing you want to watch out for is sleeve length: your cuffs should rest just on your wrist, not too low and not too high. If you’re wearing a suit jacket, your cuffs should poke out roughly one centimetre (French cuffs are often more prominent than barrel cuffs, and that’s totally fine).
The shirt’s yoke is the panel of fabric that sits over your shoulders. Most dress shirts are going to be ‘single’ yokes, which means the yoke is made from one bit of fabric, stretched from shoulder to shoulder. More fancy, customized shirts sometimes have ‘split’ yokes, with a seam running down the middle. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for this one. Split yokes allow a bit more movement across the shoulders, but they’re also a bit more expensive. Whichever way you go, the fit is crucial here. You don’t want any loose fabric ballooning away from your shoulder blades.
The shirt’s body is where you get the most variation in fit. Some dress shirts are cut slimmer than others. Some have darts through the back, for extra tapering. Some have French plackets (no seams down the front). Others have standard plackets (with stitching on either side of the buttons). For really formal, black tie occasions, you want a dress shirt without too many frills and details: fewer buttons, fewer stitch marks, French cuffs and no funny business. For any other occasion, it’s really up to you.
Linen standard-fit shirt
Linen shirts are pushing dress shirts to their absolute casual limit, but they can look amazing with the right tailoring. Obviously you can wear linen shirts with shorts, or bomber jackets, or basically anything, but we’re sticking to formal occasions here. That means you must tuck. And the shirt needs to fit snug, not loose. If you’re pairing a linen shirt with formal dress slacks, keep the sleeves rolled down and the cuffs buttoned, and look for easy colour contrasts. Blue shirt, tan trousers. Navy shirt, white pants. Finish the look with some loafers—and no socks.
Stretch fabric dress shirt
A lot of dress shirts nowadays are incorporating spandex or elastane, for extra stretch across the shoulder blades. This is particularly important for slim-fit dress shirts. You don’t want to hug aunty Muriel and feel your shirt rip apart at the seams. Look for stretchy, soft twill fabrics here, or cotton blends. You want something that will hug your torso, but also move and breathe with your body. There’s no big trick to styling stretch-fabric dress shirts: just layer them under a jacket, and find a good tie to match.
Slim-fit Oxford shirt
You’ve probably seen Oxford shirts around without realizing it. The Oxford cloth button-down shirt is an iconic menswear staple, right up there with flannel and selvedge denim. You’ll almost always see this guy in shades of navy, sky blue, pink or white, and it makes a fantastic dress shirt. The ‘Oxford’ bit comes from the weave, which is softer than your typical stiff-collared dress shirt, with a subtle texture and smooth finish. You can throw an Oxford under a summer suit or over a crew-neck tee. They look good with a knit tie or open-collar. It’s hard to go wrong with this one.
Floral print dress shirt
Floral dress shirts are high-stakes fashion. A lot of guys are intimidated by the bold designs, especially when it comes to dress shirts (which are usually discreet and invisible), but honestly, anyone can pull this off. It just needs a bit of care and attention. The golden rules are: one print per outfit (please don’t clash multiple flowers), layer up with tonal accessories (if there’s some lilac or blue in your print, find a jacket that brings out those colours) and less is more (when it comes to dress shirts, think subtle floral designs, not Hawaiian cocktail hour). Keep these shirts up your sleeve for summer garden parties. They’re a dead-set crowd pleaser.
Long sleeve button-down shirt
Sleeves down is always going to look dressier than sleeves up. That’s just a fact of life. But some dress shirts suit the long-sleeve look better than others. These are the long-sleeve button-down shirts. Obviously sleeve length and cuffs come into play here. Your shirt needs to fit not just across your chest and shoulders, but also down your arms. If there’s any fabric bunching at the shoulder, or the armpits, or the small of your back, try going one size down. And always tuck for formal occasions. A long-sleeve navy dress shirt with a sharp belt and tan slacks will never let you down.
Brad Mclennan, Designer
Bradley Mclennan has been with POLITIX for 5 years as a designer, and has over 11 years' experience across womenswear, everyday brands and streetwear. He has always been fascinated with how a creative outlook affects people's lives. A great song. An inspired building. Brad love's to push the boundaries. He's the guy injecting colour and pushing the team to be bold. Bringing the whole thing together with an insane attention to detail.