One Shirt, Two Shirt, White Shirt, Blue Shirt

Elegance often comes from simplicity.  Our friend MistahWong is one of the best-dressed guys we know, and with his suits he wears plain white and blue shirts.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But when and how should you wear solid blue and white shirts?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

White shirts are the all-time classic.  They came to be regarded as the formal shirting in a time when people had access to far fewer clothes.  The fact that you could wear a “white collar” meant that you were a successful professional or aristocrat who could afford to own and maintain easily-soiled shirts.  That meaning, of course, has faded, but the white shirt remains the standard for formal dress.  If you’re going to a christening or a funeral or a board meeting, you will likely (and reasonably) wear a white shirt.

The white shirt also goes with everything.  It is a neutral ground for almost any tie or coat.  Today, in fact, I’m wearing a white oxford shirt with robin’s-egg blue trousers that would have looked a bit off (not to mention a bit much) with almost any other color shirt.

Of course, the white shirt has its disadvantages as well.  Probably the most significant is that it isn’t complimentary to the coloration of almost anyone.  The complexions of light-skinned white men, in particular, tend to be washed out by white shirts.  A lot of bright white can make a man’s skin look vaguely sickly rather than vibrant.  This is less of an issue if you have dark skin, but it’s dangerous without a marked contrast - you’d probably look better in cream or ecru anyway.

The white shirt is also ubiquitous.  It is the shirt of the poorly-dressed man.  A poorly-fitted or poor-quality white shirt is the quickest route to looking like a bank teller or a teenager selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door to “pay for college.”

The blue shirt is less formal than the white shirt, but it’s still acceptable in almost any formal situation.  You wouldn’t wear a blue shirt with black tie, and you might be less likely to wear it to an art opening or funeral, but it’s certainly acceptable in almost any office.  The reality is that most, outside of England anyway, would accept in in pretty much any situation. 

It’s also much more gentle on the complexion.  No less suitable for the man of color, for most white men it will almost invariably look notably better.  If you happen to have blue eyes, there’s no excuse not to wear it, as it will make you sparkle.

The blue shirt is also just as versatile as the white shirt.  It’s tough to find a combination of tie and suit that would look wrong with a plain blue shirt. 

So, what should you have in your closet?

Certainly use white shirts for important occasions.  Have one or two great white shirts.  My own white shirts include a Barba I bought for my wedding, a Charvet I thrifted and a Corneliani I bought for everyday wear.  All three have rich weaves and soft hands that make it apparent I’m not wearing a $19 shirt from Marshall’s.  They are formal shirts that reflect the significance of the occasions when I will wear them. 

I also have several white oxford-cloth button down shirts for casual wear.  Oxford cloth has a texture which reduces the sheen which can make a white shirt look cheap and can make your face look extra-sickly.  It is particularly important to avoid non-iron finishes in white shirts, which tend to make them look slick, cheap and all-around lousy.  For a casual shirt, there’s nothing wrong with a little rumple.

What do I do?  When I’m grabbing a shirt from my closet to go with a sport coat or suit, it’s usually blue.  A few blue oxfords from Lands’ End and Benjamin Bixby are probably the shirts I wear most.  A few harder-finish nearly solid blues (shirts with a slight pattern that read as solid) are what I grab for suits or more formal sport coat situations. 

Generally, your go-to shirts should be blue, too.  Your more formal shirts should be white.  Particularly with white shirts, keep an eye on quality - it’s easy to look like you went for the white shirt because without it, you couldn’t manage dressing yourself.

Q and Answer: Short-Sleeved Dress Shirts
Clifford asks: My new question for you is, what are your thoughts on short sleeve dress  shirts for the hotter months?  Yay or Nay?  I very seldom see anyone  pull this off without looking like Homer Simpson.
In general: nay.  However, it can be done.
You should never wear a short-sleeved dress shirt the way Homer does: as a substitute for a long-sleeved dress shirt.  Best case scenario is you look like a Mormon missionary, and worst case scenario, you look like something that’s even worse than that (nothing coming to mind right now).
However, it is possible to wear a short sleeved button-up shirt in a more casual context and not look like a dweeb.  First of all, fit will make a huge impact.  A slim fit here is even more important than usual because it sends the message: “this is a choice I’m making.”  Your goal is to be clear that the short sleeves aren’t just a concession to the heat and slobbiness, but rather an affirmative action.  The second thing to remember is that you’re looking for a casual shirt.  Something like this gingham button-down from Black Fleece is a good example.  A casual pattern, a casual fabric, a casual collar style and a sharp fit (at least on the not-very-skinny folks like me).
It should also be paired with clothes that fit you well.  The goal, again, is to have an ensemble that gives people the feeling that you know what you’re doing, which will allay their fears that you are Homer Simpson. 

Q and Answer: Short-Sleeved Dress Shirts

Clifford asks: My new question for you is, what are your thoughts on short sleeve dress shirts for the hotter months?  Yay or Nay?  I very seldom see anyone pull this off without looking like Homer Simpson.

In general: nay.  However, it can be done.

You should never wear a short-sleeved dress shirt the way Homer does: as a substitute for a long-sleeved dress shirt.  Best case scenario is you look like a Mormon missionary, and worst case scenario, you look like something that’s even worse than that (nothing coming to mind right now).

However, it is possible to wear a short sleeved button-up shirt in a more casual context and not look like a dweeb.  First of all, fit will make a huge impact.  A slim fit here is even more important than usual because it sends the message: “this is a choice I’m making.”  Your goal is to be clear that the short sleeves aren’t just a concession to the heat and slobbiness, but rather an affirmative action.  The second thing to remember is that you’re looking for a casual shirt.  Something like this gingham button-down from Black Fleece is a good example.  A casual pattern, a casual fabric, a casual collar style and a sharp fit (at least on the not-very-skinny folks like me).

It should also be paired with clothes that fit you well.  The goal, again, is to have an ensemble that gives people the feeling that you know what you’re doing, which will allay their fears that you are Homer Simpson. 

Eight Days of Style
Reader Lucy wrote to us to ask that we suggest eight super-basic, affordable Hanukkah gifts for her boyfriend “to replace his stained light-wash jeans and Nine Inch Nails t-shirts.”  We’ll offer one choice for each day the oil burned.
Above: the Lands’ End Hyde Park Tailored Fit Dress Shirt in blue.  A simple button-down with a solid fit and good construction for $30.  A solid layering piece if ever such a piece there was.

Eight Days of Style

Reader Lucy wrote to us to ask that we suggest eight super-basic, affordable Hanukkah gifts for her boyfriend “to replace his stained light-wash jeans and Nine Inch Nails t-shirts.”  We’ll offer one choice for each day the oil burned.

Above: the Lands’ End Hyde Park Tailored Fit Dress Shirt in blue.  A simple button-down with a solid fit and good construction for $30.  A solid layering piece if ever such a piece there was.