How to Wear Men’s Silk Shirts in Style

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No, we’re not headed off to a disco (or that ‘70s-themed party). Rather, the silk shirt made a dashing, if not appropriately flamboyant entrance last year. And, instead of becoming one of those here-for-a-minute trends, it’s everywhere: On camp collar shirts (essentially, an off-shoot of that pajama shirt trend), on long-sleeve button-ups, and, weirdly, on those high-end, hiking-inspired styles found on the runway.

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Some Background About Silk

Men's Silk Shirts
Silk Shirt Dolce & Gabbana

When we say “silk,” you think “’70s” – from the flowy material to the crazy patterns found all over the period’s lightweight, club-leaning styles. Or, you automatically associate it with women’s everyday garments – like dress pants, job interview shirts, and, for one extreme, lingerie. But, since menswear slowly adopted velvet, floral prints, and lace, it’s about time that we gave silk a second look – or, at least, explore it in a modern context, away from all retro associations.

So, for starters, the material’s been used for clothing as far back as the 4th Century B.C. – initially in China and, several centuries later, in the Western World, as a result of the Silk Road. Beyond history, however, the fabric fits the current desire for tech materials: Believe it or not, in spite of its luxurious, if not foofy connotations, silk’s one of the strongest natural fabrics available, offers some degree of breathability, and manages to soak up plenty of moisture, whether that’s water or perspiration, before it looks and feels wet.

Men's Silk Shirts
Silk Shirt from Polo Ralph Lauren

The result, purely from a performance perspective, is pure perfection – with a slew of seeming contradictions. It’s light but tough, seems fancy but actually does something, keeps your body cool when it’s hot out, manages to repel both mold and mildew, and is also hypoallergenic. The last time you saw a list of specs like that, you were probably looking at a pair of merino wool hiking socks.

Silk, of course, looks better, and that’s why you’d prefer it for a shirt or jacket over, say, wool. Its lustrous appearance belies its versatility – one that easily holds onto dyes, can be embroidered with an intricate pattern or graphic, and is completely open to possibilities. And, if you think about it, from robes and sweaters to classic souvenir jackets to the decades-old vintage style you’ve found on Etsy or eBay, silk’s everywhere and, simply put, lasts longer than any ordinary polyester garment. As an added bonus, it’s also a fairly easy-to-care-for fabric.

Speaking to its ubiquity, you might even own a silk piece or two already. For high-end suit jackets, it’s ideal as a liner, while, for your ties, dress socks, and pocket squares, similarly luxurious, investment styles utilize it over synthetics. And, if you’re into exploring the outdoors, you’ll occasionally find it in base layer garments as a naturally temperature-regulating material.

Wearing Silk in 2018

Men's Silk Shirts
Silk Shirt from E Zegna

Yet, while the fabric is seemingly everywhere, the silk shirt, by contrast, is a novelty, of sorts, that nods to multiple references. One, it returned with the slow, almost simmering ‘70s revival last year, along with corduroy, turtlenecks, Sherpa lining, and an affinity for chocolate brown, mustard yellow, and burnt orange. But, on the other hand, it’s the least movie-drawn style – unless, rather, you’re looking to Saturday Night Fever or one of the period’s lesser disco movies. As such, its faded, grainy, urban-meets-salt-of-the-earth character gets subverted for the city guy who just wants to have a good time.

And, that’s where the silk shirt keeps some at a distance: It’s fun, but, at the same time, seems extravagant, looks a bit dandy-ish, and, worse, seems made for a skeevy party at the Playboy Mansion. It’s the type of clubbing top that you’d associate with obnoxious bros on the prowl or, at the extreme, that guy who cares just a bit too much about fashion – essentially, the hypebeast without his Supreme.

So, to fit between these two extremes, here’s how to pull off a silk shirt well:

Camp Collar

Men's Silk Shirts
Silk Shirt from Versace
Men's Silk Shirts
Silk Shirt from Gucci

Relax – but don’t be a louche. The square yet flowy body contrasting against the double-notched collar is today’s perfect juxtaposition, pulling from the distant past, the highly stylized ‘90s version of Romeo + Juliet, the chill vibes of a pajama top, and the flashy cool of a bowling shirt you just earned. And, while it’s simultaneously the strangest yet the most “right” of all fashion amalgamations, the silhouette sets a solid foundation, too, for plenty of prints, patterns, and embroidery options. Go Hawaiian, get as detailed as a classic souvenir jacket, or simply look as if you lounge about everywhere you go.

Western Wear

Men's Silk Shirts
Silk Shirt from Calvin Klein

Calvin Klein’s Spring/Summer 2018 presentation made us believe that it’s a rhinestone cowboy’s world – and we’re just living in it. The Americana oozed through every seam, with color-blocked silk western shirts exemplifying that dressed up, intentionally tacky aesthetic. And, while it looks sharp, there’s a bit of subversion implied, too. Rather than go for the ordinary Stars and Stripes print, Raf Simons borrows something uniquely and ruggedly American – and glosses over it with a strong dose of Las Vegas kitsch.

Leisurewear and Knits

Men's Silk Shirts
Silk Shirt from Zegna

Not every silk shirt goes for the gold – literal or figurative. Ermenegildo Zegna’s more recent efforts, as one such example, incorporate the material for its somewhat shimmering nature and natural tech properties. But, the result isn’t completely dull – like ordinary workout clothes with a fancy brand slapped on.

Rather, its inclusion is a bit subtler. With polo shirts, for instance, the distinctive, classic silhouette, just slightly slimmer than usual, catches your eye, but the fine knit, with a slight sheen, plays up the luxury factor. In other ways, it gives an ordinary striped T-shirt a smoother quality, while it adds a more practical, performance-leaning dimension to a color-blocked bomber. In short, you’ve got more sophisticated basics that simultaneously look good and keep you cool.

The Bohemian Club Kid Rockstar

Men's Silk Shirts
Silk shirt from Louis Vuitton

No, this isn’t derived from a single pop culture moment, but styles we’ve spotted from Marc Jacobs, Etro, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci all paint such a mythical character – one equally at home at a ‘90s New York City club, living a free-wheeling life through the ‘80s as an artist, and clearly inspired by Mick Jagger. He’s the type to switch from animal prints one day to digital scenescapes the next, but what stays the same is the fit – like your typical button-down with some extra space. The shirttail hem hangs lower, the cuffs and collar add the structure, and, in between, the material’s flowy continuity contrasts against his slim velvet pants or ripped-up jeans.

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