Originally considered underwear, shirts didn’t come into their own until the 20th century, yet of all the garments that go into our outfits, the shirt is the most diverse and the most visible. White shirts have always been at the top of the fashion food chain because it’s indicative of a lifestyle where the wearer doesn’t get dirty. Likewise, colored shirts have traditionally been more casual because the colors were originally meant to obscure stains between washings.
The easiest way I’ve found to organize this list is by the length of the placket — the reinforced piece of fabric onto which buttons are attached. A shirt with a full placket is one with buttons from the neck down to the bottom hem. Shirts with partial plackets have buttons that start at the neck but don’t extend to the bottom of the shirt. A shirt without a placket has no buttons.
Dress and Sport Shirts
First, let’s discuss our basic shirts with full plackets and collars. They come in a countless array of colors, cuts, and costs. A simple dress shirt in a conservative color is the foundation for nearly every formal outfit. Add a bold pattern or a unique cut and it becomes a sports shirt, ready for a night out. These shirts come in both short- and long-sleeved varieties. Whichever way we go, fit comes first, if it’s too billowy we’ll look like we borrowed dad’s shirt, if it’s too tight, we look fat.
This shirt is primarily distinguished by its collars being buttoned down. This feature was originally added to the shirt by polo players to keep their collars from flapping in their faces as they rode. Considering its athletic roots, the button-down conveys more casualness than your average dress shirt and is often made of softer fabrics. Dress it up with a tie and slacks, dress it down with an open collar and jeans.
The camp shirt is the most casual of the full-placket shirts on this list. Like the others, it has a collar, but the collar on a camp shirt has no collar stand – the extra piece of fabric around the neck that raises the collar off of the shirt. Instead, the collar lays flat against the garment. Always casual, never tucked in, save the camp shirt (especially the Hawaiian prints) for warmer climates or warmer months.
The guayabera is a staple of Latin American fashion and even the official formalwear of Cuba when worn white and long sleeved. This shirt is defined by the pockets on the front of the shirt, the fine pleats that run vertically along the front and back of the garment, and the straight bottom hem, meant to be untucked. Wear it in white for formal occasions, or wear it in a color and add a dash of embroidery for a more casual look.
The original, modern polo shirt was designed by Rene Lacoste for tennis players and has since found its way from the tennis courts to couture. A polo can be worn tucked or untucked. If you’re going to wear it untucked, pay attention to the length of the shirt. If it hangs too far down your hips, it starts to look like a dress.
The origin of the rugby shirt is evident from its name. More than a long-sleeved polo shirt, the rugby is made from thicker shirting and often has more stitching in the yoke to survive scrums. Unlike with the polo, don’t be afraid to layer this on top of other clothes. As long as you’ve got a good fit, you can go either formal or casual with this shirt.
Henleys are one step above t-shirts when it comes to fashion and formality. Meant to be worn close to the body, the Henley is a team player that looks good when layered under a sweater or a rugby. Henleys also work well by themselves to dress up a pair of jeans.
A t-shirt is always casual. Many writers will flat-out tell us to never wear a t-shirt, but we don’t need to be as puritan as all that. T-shirts were originally undershirts and work shirts, so generally we shouldn’t be wearing them with a blazer. But as long as the fit is good and we’re not carrying too much extra weight, t-shirts are an easy addition to jeans or shorts.
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