Just because your shirt looks, feels, smells, and tastes like a real dress shirt, doesn’t mean it actually IS a real dress shirt.
Scary, right? It’s like you’ve been lied to all your life.
To preface all this…
Remember that in this day and age (and in this world of overly-casual dress), this may not matter in your current situation.
Regardless, it’s still good information to know, in case you need to recognize the distinctions in the future.
Points of Distinction: Real Dress Shirts
The difference, of course, is in the details. See if you can pinpoint these when checking out the shirts in your closet.
Dress shirts are typically made of a finely-woven cotton. You don’t need to know the different types of weaves, but you can tell the difference if you feel the fabric with your fingers.
Compare an oxford button-down with a formal dress shirt. Dress shirts tend to be more lustrous and have a bit of sheen to the finish. Even if it’s matte, it’s much more smooth than your typical button-down collar or sport shirt.
Dress shirts tend to be more conservative with color and pattern (though not always) as they’re meant to complement suits and ties. You’ll find plenty of dress shirts in solid colors and subtle stripes, checks, etc.
This doesn’t mean dress shirts can never be interesting and colorful, by the way. You’ll find many contemporary designers and fashion-forward stores experimenting with color to create non-traditional dress shirts.
If you’re in style kindergarten, I suggest sticking with subtle dress shirts. Instead, focus your energy on learning how things should fit and how to complement colors before buying the fancy stuff.
Dress shirts can be a bit longer, as they’re meant to be tucked in. Because of their length, they’re not meant to be worn untucked. Hopefully that’s obvious by now.
If you do wear it untucked, it’ll probably be long enough to cover your butt, and well, do I have to link you to that Primer article again? The one that illustrates appropriate untucked shirt length? Leave the shirt dresses to the ladies, dudes.
Here’s the thing: if your shirt has a button-down collar like the image in the second row, far left, your shirt is not a dress shirt.
Button-down collars are usually seen with casual sport and Oxford cloth shirts. This style has been adapted into standard officewear (again, a product of the casualization of the workplace).
Traditionally speaking, this isn’t a true dress shirt. In fact, style historians (totally made that up) say the button-down collar was adapted from the shirts polo players wore, designed specifically so their collars wouldn’t flap in the wind and slap them in the face as their horses sprinted around the field (not making that part up).
Here’s a little more about that.
Dress shirts have stiffer collars (made sturdy by this stuff called interfacing) to hold its own against ties and jacket lapels.
Sport shirts and other casual collared shirts don’t typically have interfacing… or if they do, it’s minimal and doesn’t provide much structure.
Dress shirts should still be slim and fitted without being overly tight or uncomfortable (same goes for your sport shirts).
If the buttons are pulling, if you can’t cross your arms without tearing the seams, if you can’t sit down without constricting your breathing or sucking in your gut… these are all signs your shirt is too tight.
Conversely, if there’s room for two people in your shirt, if your shoulder seams go halfway down your bicep, if your sleeve has obscene amounts of extra fabric bunching at the waist when tucked in, or at the wrist when your cuff is buttoned… these are all signs your shirt is too damn big.
When do I need to wear a dress shirt?
Dress shirts are perfect when wearing suits and tuxedos. If you’re going for a more casual vibe (i.e. denim and a sport coat), dress shirts are optional but not necessary. You can substitute it with a sport shirt.
Does that help?
Bottom line: There’s a difference between a true dress shirt and a regular button-up shirt.
Does it really matter? Well, that depends on your daily situation, your work’s dress code, and / or your lifestyle. If you work in a formal environment where suits are the norm, I suggest sticking with dress shirts. If your office is more casual, then casual button-down collars are fine.
Am I happy that you’re taking steps to up your style game, regardless of shirt type? Of course! Great job. High fives all around!
Like I said earlier, the differences may not matter in your everyday life, but it’s important to understand the distinctions. Knowledge is power!
Questions, clarifications, points to add? Leave em below.