In the spectrum of menswear, few items are as traditional as a white shirt. Or, more specifically, a white button-front, when ironed and tucked in, is peak refinement and sophistication.
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It’s also incredibly versatile. That’s at the heart of why white shirts – from T-shirts to polos to button-fronts – are a staple of many men’s wardrobes.
On the other hand, classic can quickly lead to a lack of inspiration. You know exactly what you’re doing, even to the point that you acknowledge you’re going through the motions. In turn, even when you’re opting for a more traditional approach, you can still get creative. So, as you revamp your shirting, think about the following:
White Shirt or Shirt?
Proponents exist on either side. On one hand, a white shirt symbolizes timeless simplicity. It adapts to and can be worn with practically everything – jeans to chinos, to your finest suit, to that casual patterned number you take out for weddings.
But, as the flipside to this, a white shirt never stands out directly on its own. Rather, it exists with and complements another item, often taking a backseat or, with darker hues, standing on an equal plane. In short, it’s a keystone, but it’s never the full star of the show.
As another downside, white requires a greater degree of care. Mixing it up with dark items or red in the wash means it’ll come out a gray, dun shade – sometimes the color of sidewalk, others of dishwater, and, on the rare occasion, a light pinkish hue.
Furthermore, unless you’ve intentionally purchased a wrinkle-resistant or non-iron shirt, you’ll need to have it pressed before wear. Otherwise, every crease will show.
A black shirt, by contrast, doesn’t quite have the same classic reputation. On the other, unless you accidentally add bleach to your wash, this color is far easier to maintain – although ironing is still essential. Dirt and other flaws are easily camouflaged, and if you unintentionally splash yourself with coffee, it goes unnoticed.
Like white, it’s also versatile, whether you’re sporting a suit or it’s a jeans-and-sport-coat day. Yet, as the most significant difference, black isn’t ideal for wearing with a tie – unless you intend to go monochrome. As a basic rule of thumb, a tie shouldn’t ever be darker than the shirt you’re wearing, and in turn, a black button-front is off the table for many formal occasions.
Finding a Quality White Dress Shirt
In thinking about your wardrobe’s foundation, you can’t go wrong with a white dress shirt. For most of its history, it functioned more like an undergarment, tucked into pants and worn under a jacket or coat. But, just as undershirts evolved into T-shirts, men started wearing them without a jacket or coat on top.
Not all styles are equal, and the best dress shirts typically have the following elements:
- A slim to regular fit: The shirt should sit close to the skin, not bag in places, and not create “batwings” in the arms due to extra material. A poorly fitting white dress shirt can have a sack-like appearance that flatters no one.
- A structured point collar: Button-downs, contrary to traditional office dress codes, were conceived for casual wear. A true dress shirt has a turned-down stiff collar with pointed ends. Decades ago, this aspect – plus the cuffs on the shirt – gave way to the term “white collar job.” A collar still white by the end of the day – and not discolored with dirt – indicated a man’s occupation didn’t involve manual labor.
- No breast pocket: Although not every shirting brand follows this rule, dress shirts traditionally don’t have shirt pockets.
- Cuffs: Traditionally, a men’s dress shirt sported French cuffs. While that’s still the case, buttoned barrel cuffs are far more common – and don’t require a set of cufflinks.
Traditionally, cotton, in a twill or oxford weave, is used for a white dress shirt. Yet, as many men know, ironing becomes essential. As such, since the early ‘90s and picking up more momentum over the last decade, non-iron dress shirts offer a solution. Blending polyester or spandex into the material, non-iron dress shirts are a low-maintenance alternative that looks just as crisp – and helps you get ready in far less time.
Alternatives to the White Dress Shirt
Between the dress shirt and T-shirt, you have a host of alternatives that diverge off a typically classic path:
- Band collar shirt: Surging in popularity over the past few years, band collar shirts – also called grandad collar shirts – replace the fold-over pointed or soft collar with a simple two-sided piece of fabric that sits on the collarbone while framing the base of the neck. It feels like a T-shirt, but the button-front closure gives it a more sophisticated edge.
- Popover shirt: To some degree, a popover is the best of both worlds. Not to be confused with a pullover, a popover tends to feature a collar, and while it has a buttoned placket, it’s more polo than button-down. Basically, you get the polish of a collared shirt and the ease of a polo shirt in a single garment.
- Polo shirt: Or, for something more traditional, return to the polo shirt. Differentiating itself from all styles listed here, polos in more recent seasons have become sportier, with a closer fit, flexible construction, and performance properties. As the ultimate embodiment of business casual, polos feature a relaxed, often knit collar, a three- or four-button placket, and a boxy shape with two side vents that’s made for tucking in.
- Striped shirt: Not every white shirt has to be solid. Rather, for a lighter, breezier pattern option, consider a shirt with a white foundation accented by micro or uneven stripes to break up your wardrobe’s classic pieces.
- Denim shirt: Light-colored denim, from bleached to full-on white, emerged a couple of years ago, and has since turned into the symbol of summer, at least where menswear is concerned.
- Flannel Shirt: Flannel isn’t the same as plaid, although the two are practically intertwined. The best flannel shirts tend to feel soft – whether from brushed cotton or more traditional wool – and insulate effectively without feeling significantly heavy. Yet, the material itself should be soft enough to wear as a full-on shirt or as a shirt-jac. In any case, if plaid or checks have put you off (or give off lumberjack vibes), consider flannel in a solid off-white shade.