Tired of shirkin' when shirtin'
October 20, 2008 12:22 PM   Subscribe

What do I need to know before buying a white dress shirt?

I'm at a point in my professional life where the whisper-thin $14.99 white dress shirts just aren't cutting it. Before I take the half-assed step to the merely rumour-thin $30 white dress shirts, I wonder if somebody natty among the MeFi set could give me some pointers. Where are the price points for quality in white dress shirts? What should I look for when shirting up?

For bonus points: I live in a smallish Quebec town where the closest stores are all Canadian chains like The Bay, Sears, etc. Sites like this one seem to offer ... er ... shirts of quality I cannot ascertain at prices that may or may not be reasonable, which would be convenient. Essentially, I have no idea what I'm doing here, so any thoughts would be appreciated.
posted by Shepherd to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (24 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I find that the catalogue retailers have decent dress shirts that fit reasonably well and have good quality materials for the price. I have never had good luck at Sears or la Baie. Check out landsend.com. If you don't like 'em, just send 'em back.
posted by GuyZero at 12:29 PM on October 20, 2008

You should just go to Brooks Brothers and be done with it. It's about $50 a shirt if you buy three of them, and they are the best dress shirts on the planet IMO. They don't even wrinkle after sitting on a plane for 5 hours. You can even shop online if you are so inclined and know your size. If you don't I would go get measured somewhere and then buy BB online.

Side note: I am in no way affiliated with Brooks Brothers, just simply a connoisseur of dress shirts. :)
posted by fusinski at 12:37 PM on October 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Very important to consider is your body shape.
Most dress shirts regardless of price are cut for a man who is 30 lbs overweight.
posted by Mjolnir at 12:46 PM on October 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Always buy 100% cotton. None of that poly/cotton blend shit. If you sweat, wear an undershirt.

Get fitted for a shirt, so you know the proper neck/arm size. If you're buying shirts in XL/L/M/S, right there's your first problem.

Button-down collars are for losers.

Land's End is a good recommendation for mid-range shirts (<$50). And as much as I think Men's Wearhouse is a homogenizing pox on business culture, they'll have all the white shirts you need.
posted by mkultra at 12:48 PM on October 20, 2008

Measure your neck. Measure it well, and measure it hard1.
I would suggest getting at least one shirt with link cuffs and get some decent cufflinks: I exclusively wear cufflinks to formal affairs2, and it feels more correct.

1Well, not hard, but y'know what I mean.
2Admittedly, one time it was guiness cufflinks, but it was a hard-drinking formal affair.
posted by Lemurrhea at 12:48 PM on October 20, 2008

I think it goes without saying that you will be wearing a tie. The collar type will be dictated by the type of tie knot you choose (or visa versa). The larger the knot the wider the collar spread. Also consider your neck length when choosing a collar spread. long pointed collars look kinda clownish if you have no neck. On the other hand seriously wide spread collars can look like the shirt doesn't fit you if you have no neck. Button down are OK if you are wearing a sport coat or no jacket. To pocket or not to pocket? Serious dress shirts do not have a breast pocket, but in my experience they are hard to find.
posted by Gungho at 1:01 PM on October 20, 2008

I second Brooks Brothers' online store. (I assume there's no physical store near you.) Get the "no-iron" -- you don't have to iron them.

They seem to run slightly large -- my neck size for Brooks Brothers shirts is a half inch smaller than with most shirts.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:11 PM on October 20, 2008

Best answer: a. Get measured. This means measuring, at the very least, your neck size and arm length. eg: 15/33, 16/34, etc. Your shirt shop or department store should be able to do this for you.
b. Decide whether you'll be wearing an undershirt or not.
c. Pick collar and cuff styles. Here are some examples. Most people avoid narrow spreads and button-downs these days.
d. Consider what kind of tie knot you'll be using. Here are some examples. A wide spread collar with a small tie knot looks goofy, and a narrow spread collar with a full knot looks equally goofy.
e. Try the shirts on, with or without an undershirt. Stick your finger in between the collar and your neck. The idea is to keep the collar snug enough to ensure a good fit (one finger's worth of play is fine for most). Any looser, and the shirt will look goofy. Any tighter, and you may have difficulty swallowing or have difficulty in allowing adequate venous blood flow from your head. Bulging neck and face veins look goofy. Exploding heads are not only goofy, but deadly.
f. Keep in mind that different shirt makers size their shirts differently, even if neck/arm measurements are the same.
g. Take good care of your shirt. Avoid using bleach, when possible: it will turn your white shirts off-white. Develop a good ironing routine if you don't have one. Use a light starch if you prefer, but nothing heavier, and don't use much.

Don't go by price alone: you can find a lot of nice shirts for reasonable prices. The most important factor is fitment. Buy several, and rotato them. If you buy, say, ten, you can send five to the cleaners, wear five for the week, and have an easy, care-free routine to ensure you've got shirts at hand. Iron your cuffs inside-out. By doing so, you can gently fold them back around your wrist and form a nice, rounded cuff.

Finally, I second the opinion of finding 100% cotton shirts. Well-kept, they'll last. Well-ironed, and they'll provide a sharp, solid look. I've got a few no-iron blends, but find that even these need ironing to look decent.
posted by herrdoktor at 1:16 PM on October 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The most important three things are fit, fit, and fit. Men's clothes are ridiculously sized - neck size and sleeve length aren't necessarily correlated, and neither have anything to do with chest size. I routinely try on shirts where the neck size is too small, the sleeves are too long, the chest is much too large, and the waist is gigantic. All men's clothes are not sized the same; don't be afraid to look at other brands or other cuts ("slim" or "athletic" cuts look much better for my body type). Land's End has a custom program which might be good - and if it doesn't fit, just send it back for a full refund.

If you can't find your perfect shirt off the rack (OTW), there's always tailoring:
1. Sleeve length is easy to shorten
2. Neck size is easy to shorten
3. Chest size can't really be changed
4. Body can be tapered

I bought some custom shirts in HK for ~$40US that are leagues beyond anything I can find in a store - if you're confident in your ability to measure your body proportions, pick fabrics off the internet, can wait a while, and can stand one or two "off" shirts getting the right measurements, I think you can get something that fits really well for not much money.

Other, less important things:

1. Shirt should be as opaque as possible (hopefully undershirt shouldn't show through)
2. 100% cotton
3. Collar type dependent on what tie knot you're using
4. I see no reason to have a breast pocket ever
5. "Iron-Free" shirts are either polyester or doused in chemicals (both bad), so get used to ironing
posted by meowzilla at 1:16 PM on October 20, 2008

Best answer: Brooks makes a good shirt, although as fusinski points out, they're not cheap. But they're sort of a known quantity; you can go there and be pretty sure of what you're getting, and how the sizes are going to run, and that they'll take starch well, etc.

But if you're just going off into the wilds, here's what I'd look at (this is totally opinionated, but since you asked...):

1. Material
This is sort of the most important thing, since it doesn't matter what else is going on with a shirt if it's made out of cheap or thin cloth. There are lots of different kinds of material (Oxford cloth, Pinpoint Oxford, broadcloth, etc.). I like either traditional or Pinpoint Oxford, but basically just feel it and try to get an idea of the thickness. Hold it up to the light; it shouldn't be translucent. Look for loose threads or yarns. Brooks makes shirts in several different materials; one of them is a very soft-feeling material that's comfortable, but in my experience wears quickly. I'd avoid it unless it's for very occasional wear.

2. Cut
Different shirts are cut differently. Once you find a manufacturer that you like (or you go to a tailor and they get your measurements) you won't need to worry about this so much, but even in the same size of shirt, some are cut differently at the waist and may fit better or worse, depending on your build. I.e., some are more "athletic" or slim cuts than others. Also, if you tuck your shirt taut into your pants you'll want a different cut than if you let it blouse out a little above your belt line. You just have to try them on to get this right.

3. Details and finishing
There are a few things that scream "cheap shirt" that you might want to avoid. Chief among them (IMO) are placket-less fronts; this is where the fabric doesn't double back to form a vertical piece down the center front. This might be an intentional stylistic thing on some more modern-ish shirts, but I just think it's cheap and a way of saving materials and labor. (Full disclosure: my tastes run towards fairly conservative/traditional American-style dress shirts.) Most good shirts have a double placket. The cuffs should also be of a nice, thick materials, not floppy.

4. Personal choices
Beyond all that, there are choices to be made that are purely a matter of taste. That includes what kind of collar you want (buttondown, point, spread, etc.), and what kind of cuffs (single-button, double-button, French). If you get a point collar, the shirt ought to have little pockets on the reverse of the collar for collar stays. Use them and love them. (The brass ones are neat and will last forever, but they'll sometimes set off metal detectors and when you inevitably forget to take them out before sending the shirt to the cleaners, it sucks to lose them. Hence I just use the plastic ones.) If you get a button-down collar, for the love of God don't walk around with them unbuttoned, it's like having your shoes untied. If you think you'll forget to button them, get a point collar instead. The wide-spread collars look funny if you wear them without a tie, at least to me, but some people seem to like them.

In addition to the already-mentioned Brooks, I've had good luck over the years with the house-brand shirts from L.L. Bean and Lands End. There are also quite a few places on the internet that will do tailor-made shirts for you, for only a bit more than you'd pay for a good shirt from Brooks (because you're not paying for the brand name). I have had friends who have ordered and are big fans of Ripley Custom Shirtmakers, but I have not used them personally. Apparently they send you a free sample kit of fabrics, plus a guide to taking your own measurements, and then they keep your pattern on file so you can call up and order shirts as-needed. Their site gives a nice idea of the many variations that are possible in dress shirts, too.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:18 PM on October 20, 2008

Button down collar for blazer* or sportcoat only. Not with a suit.

Do not wear an undershirt with a white dress shirt. You may as well just put a plastic pen holder in your breast pocket. Buy a good un-natural anti-perspirant if sweat is a problem.

If you have a budget I would second Brooks Bros. They make a nice 100's broadcloth.

Thin does not necessarily mean "cheap".

"every man should have a navy blazer (again, if you have price issues, Brooks will have reasonably-priced blazers)
posted by Zambrano at 1:30 PM on October 20, 2008

Best answer: Dress shirts are sized in several ways: neck size and sleeve length are the most obvious, but beyond those measurements, they can also be "Fitted" or not. In general, as your neck size increases, the size and volume of the shirt increases, e.g., a shirt that is 17-33 (17" neck, 33" sleeves) will be sized for someone who weighs ~230 lbs, give or take 15 lbs. If you have a large neck (> 17" in U.S. sizing) but do not have a large body, you should probably look at shirts that are Fitted or have an athletic cut (which in this case would be referred to as 17-33 Fitted).

Other tidbits:

1. When you go to a store to look for dress shirts, they are grouped first by neck size, then by sleeve length. If the store has a competent floor staff, they will also be grouped by color and pattern within each neck/sleeve size combo -- white to darker colors, then the "fancies" (patterns). How well the shirts are organized is an easy measure of how good a given men's department is.

2. If you are larger/taller or shorter/smaller than the average man, you should consider going to a specialty clothier to buy your dress shirts. If you are a natural 16-29 but are forced to wear 16-33 because that's all that's available...your sleeves are going to look ridiculously long.

3. Quality shirts cost more money, but will last you for years.

4. Cotton is king, and all blends are inferior, IMO. The best quality (and most comfortable) shirts have a higher threadcount than shirts of a lesser shirts.

The above is a distillation information I've absorbed from my father, who has been selling men's clothing since men stopped wearing animal skins. BTW, he hates casual Fridays and would like everyone to dress more formally at work ;-)
posted by mosk at 1:34 PM on October 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Um, wearing a button-down collar dress shirt with jeans or khakis without the buttons buttoned in a casual setting is not a faux pas.

I've never heard of a dress shirt without a placket. My sports shirts from Loro Piana have no placket, but those are Italian.
posted by Zambrano at 1:38 PM on October 20, 2008

Do not wear an undershirt with a white dress shirt.

Which looks tackier, sweating through your shirt and coat, or wearing an undershirt? ;)

At least with the undershirt, the dampness remains confined to the shirt and undershirt. (for me)
posted by wierdo at 1:42 PM on October 20, 2008

Definitely try the custom tailored shirts. I just picked up a couple from Jantzen and they're fantastic. Never realized until now that none of my shirts really fit.

I had the benefit of getting fitted at their store in Hong Kong, but you can take your own measurements and send them in, or they'll copy an existing shirt.
posted by electroboy at 1:45 PM on October 20, 2008

Best answer: If you are indeed in Sherbrooke, go to Simons and buy their top end house brand shirts. They sell for about $80 and if you are lucky, you can find them at 50% off. I got around 10 of those and they're of impeccable quality.

What I look for in a shirt :
-The fabric should be thick and textured, especially for white shirts.
-The threads should be barely visible.
-Rounded or mitered cuff.
-The last buttonhole should have an horizontal opening

Also :
Button-down collars looks silly
Never, ever wear cuff links without a jacket.
posted by racingjs at 3:20 PM on October 20, 2008

Just today I came across this blog post, which is about assessing the quality of a shirt. It may be helpful to you. It seems (heh) you can tell the quality of a shirt somewhat by looking at the stitching along the side seams.
posted by losvedir at 3:58 PM on October 20, 2008

neck size is important. If you measure ,say, 17", get an 18" neck size shirt. It is hard to buy off the rack at stores because sleeve length is usually 35", and neck is 16" or 17". When I dress up, I want to be comfortable, which means not tugging at your tie and dieing to unbutton that top button to loosen up.

A lot of shirts are to much fabric in the mid section.

A lot of shirts are not enough fabric, in opacity.

I have never been to a tailor, but if you live in a city I would see one and get fitted properly, or a decent men's dress store.

there is nothing wrong with a 50/50 blend. Less wrinkles. Fit is most important, and quality. Expect to spend 75.00 each. 45.00 for the silk tie to go with.
posted by cvoixjames at 5:09 PM on October 20, 2008

To check the fit, hug yourself. It should not be tight. A little too long on the sleeve is better than a little too short. If you do your own laundry, buy a bit bigger, because you will probably over dry it and shrink it a bit.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:57 PM on October 20, 2008

Avoid the undershirt/no undershirt problem by not wearing see through shirts. (And undershirt always, in a business situation)
posted by electroboy at 7:38 PM on October 20, 2008

I find that Brooks Brothers caters to fat businessmen. The cuts seem all to run wide and square. Prefer Banana Republic for shirts of similar quality in the same price range. A bit overpriced at retail, but reasonable when on sale.
posted by kenliu at 8:14 PM on October 20, 2008

Raja fashions does excelent custom made fitted shirts for bout $50. Co to one of their measurements in the us and pick up a suit as well.
posted by lalochezia at 8:56 PM on October 20, 2008

Oops: didn't see you were in qbec....still worth attending a rf thingy if you're in one of the towns thye visit.
posted by lalochezia at 8:57 PM on October 20, 2008

There are a few things that scream "cheap shirt" that you might want to avoid. Chief among them (IMO) are placket-less fronts; this is where the fabric doesn't double back to form a vertical piece down the center front. This might be an intentional stylistic thing on some more modern-ish shirts, but I just think it's cheap and a way of saving materials and labor. (Full disclosure: my tastes run towards fairly conservative/traditional American-style dress shirts.) Most good shirts have a double placket.

From my experience as a student and collector of fine shirts (I'm the author of this book), placket- or band-less shirt fronts are a perfectly reasonable choice for designers and wearers of fine and ultra-fine quality shirts; there's no connection at all between no placket and low quality. If anything, I'd say there's a slightly sporty flavor to placketed shirts, comparatively.

When I first took an interest in shirts, all my opinions were based on the shirts I saw around me and could buy in my hometown; as my horizons expanded, it quickly became obvious I'd been missing (and assuming) a lot. The hallmarks of quality are basic and inescapable: Fine fabric and careful, painstaking workmanship. Details (including how tightly a shirt fits, or doesn't) are nothing but convention and preference.
posted by dpcoffin at 10:49 PM on October 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

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