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.
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.