A basic white collar dress shirt — one without button-down collars or chest pockets — works best under a blazer. As charming as a cotton Oxford may be, especially under a broken-in blazer a la Ralph Lauren, they aren't fit for formal occasions. And, although the world remains in pre-lockdown limbo (again), there are certainly more events worth dressing up for on our calendars than there were at this time last year.
That being said, be mindful of several criteria you should consider when choosing a classic white dress shirt: the shape and size of the collar, the cuff style, the length, and the fabric. First, the collar should be wide and long enough to at least reach the lapels on your suit jacket. Modern collars might skew slim and tight, but oftentimes they're too small to slip a tie under. (I'm not saying ties are a required for a dressed up look, but it's best to have the option of wearing one.) Secondly, collar shapes say a lot about your style, and what sort of occasion it is. Most commonly, you'll find options ranging from straight to spread — with two increments in-between. These names reference the angle at which the collar's inner line points. The further outward (aka horizontal) it is, the more "spread" it is.
Since they poke out from under your sleeves — if your suit has been tailored correctly — cuffs are important considerations, too. French cuffs are the most formal, but few wear them that way anymore (or at least as often). There are squared, rounded and angled ones, too, but these are all subtle aesthetic differences. Choose the one you think looks best. Lastly, the proper length is easy to find: it just has to be long enough to tuck it in.
Finding the right fabric isn't as easy, though. Generally, it's best to think of formal shirts as both smooth and fine. Buy something cut from poplin (aka broadcloth), end-on-end or twill. Each has different defining characteristics — poplin gets softer and finer as quality increases while twill gets more opaque — but these are the three best options in my opinion. Like I said before, Oxfords, albeit soft, will not cut it for formal occasions.
Feel like you've got this? Clock ticking until your next wedding and you need an order in ASAP? I won't hold you much longer. However, I've dropped both the who and what to know before buying below. It's crucial information indeed!
Who and What to Know Before Buying
It's important to remember you may not be able to get every variable to fit well. That's to be expected. Don't stress too much over it, though. As restrictive as a dress shirt's fit may be, there is still margin to play with. Namely, the sleeves and the body. These are the most common alterations tailors perform when it comes to dress shirts. If you're not able to get the exact sleeve length or body width, make sure to get a shirt that's slightly bigger so that a tailor can cut it to the correct size.
That said, you need to make sure that the chest and shoulders are as close to perfect as you can get. These areas are trickier to alter and require a very skilled tailor and a solid line of credit.
Before you even look at a dress shirt, you need to do a little data entry. Knowing your body measurements is imperative for dialing in a great-fitting shirt, especially if you're not able to try it on at the store.
You'll need a tape measure and someone to help take your measurements. Here are the measurements you should take:
Neck: The thickest part of the neck.
Shoulders: The length across the back from one shoulder bone to the other.
Arms: From the center of the neck, to the shoulder, down to the wrist bone.
Chest: Around the widest part of the chest, usually at the nipples.
Waist: Around the widest part of the torso, usually at the belly button.
J. Crew's Bowery Shirt may not be the best dress shirt I've ever tried on, but it'll appease even the purists. Sizing proves less personalized here, though, spanning a range from X-Small through XX-Large. It comes in two fits, too, classic and slim. Lastly, it has both added stretch and a wrinkle-free finish.
Indochino's Helmsley Shirt is cut from lightweight 100-percent cotton to your unique measurements. You create a profile on the site, upload your own data and get to ordering. It's easy! And certainly safer, for those feeling skittish about booking an appointment at the tailor. These are not rush order, though. It takes about four weeks for orders to arrive.
For a sub-$100 dollar shirt, Kamakura's Tokyo Fit Royal Oxford is quite nice. They're made in Japan from Royal Oxford fabric — a more formal Oxford which is less transparent than broadcloth — with a semi-spread collar and a front placket.
Buying a shirt Proper Cloth already makes isn't the only way to shop the brand's collection. You can also customize a top to your own liking. That being said, their signature designs are damn good — and you can tweak any of the finer details on them, too. This Supima Oxford Shirt comes with a Roma Spread Collar, rounded French cuffs, a front placket, and a wrinkle-resistant finish.
Another spread collar option, Charles Tyrwhitt's Twill Shirt can be ordered according to your preferred fit, collar size, sleeve length, cuff type, and, of course, color. The cotton it is cut from proves breathable, machine washable and nearly wrinkle-resistant.
Purists may scoff at Bonobos' Jetsetter Dress Shirt, a performance-style option cut from a blend of cotton, nylon, and spandex, but it's no bust. Machine washable, comfortable, and yet plenty formal, Bonobos' option comes in over a dozen colors and four different fits, your choice of two different collar styles, and with the option of being tailored to your unique neck and sleeve measurements.
It's Brooks Brothers! Of course they (still) made the list. The oldest clothing retailer in the US, Brooks Brothers invented the button-down Oxford, but has since grown its collection to include dressier white collar shirts, too. See the Regent Fitted Dress Shirt, for example, a simple staple cut from American-grown Supima cotton. It's finished with an Ainsley collar (basically a classic one) and barrel cuffs.
Available in sizes XS through XXL, Brooklyn Tailors' BKT20 shirt is their signature style. Slim-fit yet flattering, this broadcloth version is woven in the Czech Republic and finished with darting in the back and on the sides for a trimmer fit throughout.
Cut from Eton's signature wrinkle-free Twill, their Signature Shirt comes in three different fits and an array of US standard sizes. The collar is what menswear experts call an "extreme cutaway" meaning instead of pointing out like a spread collar, it nearly curls into itself. As such, it plays well with wider tie knots and looks OK unbuttoned.
Born from a collaboration between Emanuele Maffeis and Todd Snyder, this wrinkle-free dress shirt was made in Italy from 100-percent cotton fabric from Thomas Mason's Journey Collection, a line of textiles that deter creases. But be warned: these are dry clean only.
Available in sizes 38 through 46, Dunhill's classic white dress shirt is constructed from Egyptian cotton-twill, comes with barrels cuffs and is finished with a classic collar. This fabric is new to the brand for this season, but it's sure to be a staple moving forward, because it's both crease-resistant and incredibly simple (in a good way).
Charvet is the holy grail of shirting style enthusiasts effuse about. Founded in Paris in 1838, the shirting store has sold made-to-measure and ready-to-wear since. Made according to EU sizing, this 100-percent cotton Royal Oxford shirt is designed to be slim fitting while still retaining a classic shape. Priced at $545 dollars, it's a damn serious upgrade you should really only rush to make in advance of your own wedding day.