Back to Basics: The difference between a dress shirt and a sport shirt

July 24, 2012 · 37 comments

in Apparel, Back to Basics

Hey gents,

Do you know the difference between a dress shirt and a sport shirt? Most guys consider dress shirts to be anything that buttons down the front with long sleeves and a collar.

There are actually plenty of differences as you’ll soon see. Knowledge is power, so get to know the subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences below.

Style

What’s the easiest way to tell the difference between a dress and a sport shirt?

The lines are a bit blurred and there are exceptions on both sides of the fence, but in general, dress shirts tend to be more conservatively styled and colored since they’re meant for, well, being dressed formally. They tend to have stiffer collars (to withstand things like neckties underneath them and suit jacket lapels on top of them).

Sport shirts get away with more patterns, bigger and bolder patterns, pockets, epaulets, decorative stitching and buttons, button-down collars, etc. Sport shirts can get away with collars that are less stiff. Side note: The stuff that makes collars (and cuffs, and front plackets) stiff is called interfacing.

Sizing

Most off-the-rack dress shirts give you two measurements on the tag: neck and sleeve length.

For example, if I’m buying a shirt I look for 15″ (neck), 32/33 (sleeve length). An alternative you may sometimes see is European sizing: 36, 38, 40, etc. We size our shirts this way at Fifth&Brannan.

If you’re a 15″ neck like me, you’d most likely be a 38 in European sizing. Sport shirts are usually sized S, M, L, and so on.

Fabrics

Dress shirts are typically made with cottons of finer weaves. When I say finer, I mean tight with high thread counts.

When I say weaves, think twill, broadcloth, pinpoint oxford (all cotton but each type refers to the way the fabric was woven together). Oftentimes these shirts will have a slight sheen to them. This just adds to the dressiness.

Sport shirts are less formal (thus, traditionally made for “sport”), and can come in more rugged weaves like plain oxford or flannel, or lighter weaves such as linen and chambray. They also come in more colors and different patterns.

Your typical plaid shirt will most likely be a sport shirt, while that expensive and neatly-folded white shirt you grabbed off the table in the high-end store is a dress shirt.

Our friends at Proper Cloth have put together a nice breakdown of the common shirt fabrics.

Silhouette and Fit

Silhouette should be the same whether it’s a dress shirt or a sport shirt: Accommodating to the back and shoulders, tapered down the torso, and lightly hugging the hips.

What does “lightly hugging” mean? Well you want that final button to close without it constraining your hip area. At the same time, you don’t want it billowing like a huge T-shirt; that just means your shirt is too big overall.

You want your shirt to be trim throughout. It should conform to your shape and taper at the torso. If it’s too tight, but it technically is your size, try sizing up or experimenting with a different model.

Lots of brands have a “modern” fit (more tapered and slim) and a “classic” fit (more traditionally cut with a bit of room in the torso). The image above is from Brooks Brothers; this simple graphic does a great job illustrating the differences among their different dress shirt models.

The point? Not all shirts are made the same, so don’t blindly purchase the first shirt you see. Take the time to try on different fits and you’ll save time in the long run.

Be careful with more classic, traditional cuts; they can often be too boxy. If your shirt is boxy and billowy, you’re wearing the wrong shirt.

Length

This is one of the biggest differentiators between sport and dress shirts, in my opinion. I always refer to this Primer article because it’s one of the most illustrative and easy to understand.

Here’s the thing. Dress shirts are meant to be tucked in, so traditionally, they’re made longer. This is so when you’re moving and shaking and gettin’ jiggy wid it, your shirt stays tucked in.

Sport shirts have lower side seams and shirttails that aren’t too long, so you can wear them untucked.

In general, when you’re wearing a sport shirt untucked, you want the shirt to hit no lower than the bottom of your back pocket. (Again, check out Primer to make sure you have the length right.) Any longer, and it starts to look like a dress. Any shorter and you might as well wear a tube top, ya hussy.

Brush up on your shirt anatomy here.

Bottom line

In general, sport shirts will be much more casual in fabric and style than a dress shirt. If it’s that obvious, BOOM you’re done trying to figure it out. If it’s not so clear-cut, use the distinguishing factors mentioned above to determine exactly what kind of shirt it is.

Once you do know the difference, what then? Well, you can choose the appropriate shirt based on the situation you’re getting dressed for.

Meeting the President of the United States? Throw on a crisp white dress shirt, and leave the button-down oxford shirt at home.

Gonna kick it with the homies and holla at some hotties? Feel free to put on that oxford cloth button-down (or that plaid shirt… or that nice striped number you have over there. No, not that one… yeah! Yeah, there you go, that one right there. Perfect.)

Still having trouble deciding?

Maybe you still can’t tell. Or you can’t decide which one to wear to your upcoming shindig. Questions? Let’s hear em in the comments below!

By the way, still looking for that all-in-one style solution?

Figuring out what shirt to wear is one thing, but you still have to clothe the rest of your body. EG’s first manual, The Effortless Guide to Graduating Your Style, is available here. Check it out and it may just be the solution you’ve been looking for this whole time.

 

[photo, photo, photo, photo]

About

Barron is the founder and editor of Effortless Gent, a site dedicated to helping guys figure out what looks best on them. He's based in San Francisco. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

Previous post:

Next post: