I assume my friend The RJcat might find them to be a bit affected, but I really like soft collars. Ones worn without collar stays and allowed to give some natural expression. I think they look a bit more carefree and comfortable, and those to me are the bedrocks of good style.
A soft collar requires two things. First, there needs to be enough cloth. Many collars these days are skimpy and can’t carry a good necktie. If you wear them with one, the collar’s points will lift up off the shirt and make you look like you’re being choked. Even without a tie, a short, stubby collar can look awkward, almost like it’s apologizing for its own existence. A more traditional design will have longer points, which in turn will give you more material to express some character.
The second requirement is a soft interlining. A man’s shirt collar is traditionally made with three pieces of material – the two cotton fabrics that make up either side of the collar and an interlining sandwiched in between. This interlining is typically steam pressed into place so that it’s essentially glued to the cloth. If the interlining is stiff, the collar will look rigid; if it’s soft, it will roll, curl, or otherwise do whatever it will naturally do.
Note that some shirts are made with unfused collars, which means the interlining won’t be glued to the shirt fabric. If you rub the collar between your fingers, you can feel the fabric slide across the interlining sitting in between. These types of collars will express their own character (one that Mr. Tony Chang of Ascot Chang, my preferred shirtmaker, described in my interview with him). However, this matter is technically a separate issue from whether the interlining itself is soft.
A stiff collar has its own merits, of course. It will look a bit sharper and more “at attention.” In a truly professional setting, I suppose these are the only way to go. For myself, however, I mostly wear soft collars with fusible interlinings most days of the week, and every once in a while, something unfused. On a well-made shirt, such collars will express themselves like the ones above. Only if I need to look more professional will I straighten them out with collar stays, and that’s the part that The RJcat would probably disapprove.