Shirts, like suits, can easily surprise the uninitiated with the sheer variety of options. Still, as with any other complex issue, you can boil it down to the essentials and we are trying to give those to you in this post. For picking a shirt for your suit, these are the basic styles core elements you need to focus on - in order of how you are most likely to encounter them when shopping.
1.) Size and Fit
A perfectly fitting shirt will fit well in 5 places:
The space between the collar and your neck should allow you to put in 1 fingers when buttoned. (Some say 2 fingers, but for a sharper look you might rather endure a little tightness.)
The seam should be where your shoulder starts sloping down to your arm. If it is too far out you can see that it looks sloppy and too big. If too far in you will feel restricted when moving your arms.
Your shirt should sit firmly across your chest, but not so tight that the buttons strain when you move.
You don't want your shirt to billow or be loose at the waist. A vest can hide this to some degree, but you still want to rather go for a shirt that has maximum 5 - 7 cm extra room in your waist. At the same time you want the shirt to have a little bit of room in order to move comfortable.
Make sure they are not too bulky around the arm, and that they are of the right length. To test the length, button the cuffs, put your arms at your side, bend your wrist so your palms are facing the ground - now the sleeves should lightly touch the top of your hand. The cuffs should be rather tight and allow only for a slim watch - big bulky watches don't fit with a suit style.
How to find it in a shop?
For most of us, a really good fit in a shirt is hard to find off the shelves - a tailor made shirt is a really good, albeit expensive option. But let's focus on how to buy your-off-the-shelf shirt.
A.) Collar size
Ready-made shirts are generally sold by collar size (we provide your collar size as part of our measurements). When you find them in alphabetical sizing (S/M/L), just walk away, this is not the quality you want to combine with your suit, trust me.
You can find the collar size of the shirt either clearly visible on the packaging, or otherwise on a small label above the large brand label in the neck of the shirt. The importance of how the collar fits is dependent upon whether or not you want to wear your shirt with a tie.
When wearing a tie with your shirt (e.g. dressed for gala or formal work), you should stick to your collar size - too loose looks ridiculous and too tight will give you significant discomfort. Also opening the top button and hoping to cover it up with your tie rarely works. If you can't make it work otherwise, then go for a so called button-down-collar shirt, the buttons on the collar help keep the whole ensemble stay in place even if you open the top button.
In case you plan to wear your suit without a tie (casual or less formal business), you can go for a slightly smaller collar size. Avoid something wider which will cause your shirt to wrinkle up on your chest when worn open, something you want to avoid.
Modern shirts usually come in different fits, for which you then find the different collar sizes. Most shirt companies offer shirts in regular or slim fit, some companies offer slimmer option like "fitted" or "skinny". Most people think slim fits require you to have a very athletic build, but is it is always worth at least to try on a slim fit shirt unless you really sport a proud belly.
Note: Always try on a shirt when buying from a new brand, or even a new product line of a brand you are familiar with. Don't be discouraged from trying on a shirt even though they are stocked in stores in plastic packaging. Simply ask a shop assistant if they can unpack it for you to try on. When they consider you to be serious about buying, they usually do it.
2.) Pattern and Colours
Play it safe - keep it solid, meaning single-coloured. Unless you really feel like you have a lot of experience and a good feeling for styling your suit, don't go for any patterned shirts - except maybe for your casual look.
When it comes to colours, it all depends on the look you are styling for:
Whatever your instincts - keep it white.
For a gala or wedding, colour elements should solely come from your accessories (neckwear, pocket square and for weddings maybe boutonnière).
The safe options are white and shades of blue.
They work with almost any suit - of course when pairing a blue suit with a blue shirt, you have to pay attention to get the shades right.
Depending on your personality and style you might also be able to pull off other colours. Amazing shirt colours, if worn right, are shades of pink or black. Grey tones, although popular judging by the volume you find in some shops, are really hard to make look good - they tend to look rather boring.
All rules are off for casual - you can basically do whatever you want. But don't discard the white shirt too hastily for a casual look either. A white shirt with a jacket and jeans always gives you a great look.
For shirts the range of potential fabrics is seemingly endless. And with the exception of pure polyester fabrics they are all good options to wear. You will most likely end up with cotton-polyester blends, which are great in a variety of settings. For gala or wedding looks you might want to opt for a higher quality fabric, like a silk blend. But it is not a must have.
While there again a seemingly endless variety of collars, we can loosely group the most relevant collars into two groups:
A.) Pointed Collars, and
B.) Spread Collars.
A.) Pointed Collars
They are the most common collar styles. Pointed collars are cut so that the collar points are reasonably close together with the collar angle being at or less than 60 degrees. There are generally two variations:
60 degree collar angle and the points are not significantly extended.
The Spear Point:
The collar angle is significantly less and the points are extended - sometimes to an extreme level.
Both types are often available as button down version with either a hidden button below the collar or a visible button on the collar point.
B.) Spread Collars
Are also sometimes called cutaway collars since the points have been “cut away”. Spread collars typically have a collar angle greater than 90 degrees.
When to wear what?
The choice between the different types has less to do with the occasion or style but with your choice of neckwear.
Bow ties are best worn with a spread collar, because the "absence" of the collar points allows the bow tie to shine best. So although generally the most casual option - if worn with a bow tie, spread collar might be your choice for a gala/wedding look.
All of those work with a tie, though again spread collar is the most casual. So you might go for a classic collar for a business look with tie and a not exaggerated spear point for a gala/wedding look with tie as it frames the tie very elegantly.
Unless intended as a unique style note, don't go for a spear point collar in a no tie look - neither for business nor casual look. A classic collar is perfect for a no tie business look, while a spread collar makes for a perfect casual look.
5.) Sleeve length and Cuffs
The most important rule for shirt sleeves and shirts is that the shirt sleeves should be about 2 cm longer than the jacket sleeves so they slightly look out from under your jacket arm. We have already discussed above how to test your shirt for the perfect sleeve length.
Regarding cuffs, there are 2 types of cuffs:
Are single cuffs which wrap around the arm and are buttoned into place with sewn-in buttons. Most of your off the shelve shirt options will be button cuffs and although french cuffs are the traditional elegant option, button cuffs are absolutely acceptable for a gala/wedding look, unless you wear a tuxedo.
Are the most formal option, a double cuff, folded back and fastened with cufflinks to create a distinctive and distinguished appearance. Cufflinks must always be worn with french cuffs. Most shirts which have french cuffs tend to be of higher fabric quality and more expensive as people tend to wear them more in formal settings.
We hope this short guide on how to select a shirt for your different looks has been helpful to you. For more style advise from The Tailor Network read the following blog posts:
If you want to put the concepts into action we welcome you to see us for a free Design Session to create the perfect suit for you.
Our in-person design sessions are free, and you are not committing to anything.
We will discuss your ideas and preferences, walk you through the styles, fabrics,
and all the finishing touches - and together design the perfect suit for any occasion.