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.

Let me clarify. If you recall, we touched on this subject a bit before, but we can get even more granular. This is an AITD article, after all.

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.

Body Length

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.

Collar Shape

Shirt CollarsDress shirts have a wide array of collar styles, from pointed to cutaway. I mean, look at all the different styles of collars in that image! (Click to enlarge.)

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.

Collar Stiffness

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.

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23 Responses

  1. K Maul on

    My first dress shirt from Jos A Banks was a button down. My dad used to swear by them, and he’s been around by them. His thought process was that eventually collars without support will fold/roll up, and look unsightly. Now given, I’ve moved on from that stage but found some plain white button down collar dress shirts in my closet the other day. Sure, they’re relegated to the back as emergency – but I’d say that Jos A Bank, the most conservative of conservative still sells ’em – so they can’t ALL be sport shirts with button down collars

    • Barron on

      Just because they’re conservative doesn’t mean the rule isn’t true. Button down collars = casual shirts. People dress them up in suits / blazers, but they’re still casual shirts. A TRUE dress shirt doesn’t have button down collars.

      I’m not saying YOU CAN’T wear button down collars with a suit. You can wear whatever you want. Hell, go shirtless for all I care. I’m just saying that if we’re trying to determine the differences, that’s one telling sign right there.

    • Ralphie on

      A dress shirt will usually have small pockets in the collar points for collar stays. That’s what keeps it from rolling up or pointing in odd directions.

    • Ralphie on

      A dress shirt will usually have small pockets in the collar points for collar stays. That’s what keeps it from rolling up or pointing in odd directions.

    • fattsmann on

      Button down collars are the American dress shirt. Just like a suit with matching shorts — great in Bermuda, a little weird in the US or Europe. Ultimately, it depends on what is your style.

      Button down collars with “sack” suits (single vent, minimal waist suppression) and ties are part of the “American Trad” look or the “Ivy” style. So here in the US, definitely in the Midwest/South and sometimes in the Northeast, you will find people walking around with that style. Nothing wrong with that — they grew up with that and that is inherently an “American” look.

      A BD collar with a tie and a nice fitted suit looks a little odd in my opinion.

      • Barron on

        Good point. The shirt can fit right in depending on the type of suit you’re wearing or the style of your look (Trad, Ivy). This article is more about determining if it’s a true dress shirt, which it’s not. But yes, good points.

  2. TJ on

    What about the sizing? I’d say that one thing that makes a dress shirt a dress shirt is the fact that the sizing includes neck and sleeve sizes, not just s,m,l, etc… Though I guess there may be exceptions to this rule, as there are with just about every rule.

    • Barron on

      Good point! Forgot about that one. That’s a good general determining factor as well. Dress shirts tend to have either neck/sleeve sizing (i.e. 15 – 33/34), or some sort of European sizing (38, 40, etc… like suits). Sport shirts go the S, M, L route.

    • Barron on

      Because we’re not always dressed up. The construction and fabric of sports shirts can be a much more comfortable choice. Plus dress shirts don’t always come in many choices.

      • Marshall Lilly on

        It’s about versatility. A sports shirt will look dressed down in a formal/business environment, and that’s to be avoided. A stellar dress shirt might look over dressed in a casual environment, but if I had to pick one of those scenarios, I’d take the latter in a heartbeat.

    • Dan J. on

      I’d disagree that they always look “nicer.” They generally look higher quality and more formal (although an expensive, well-fitting sport shirt can look much, much nicer than a cheap, ill-fitting dress shirt) but formal isn’t always the look you’re going for. I think a sports shirt often looks better with, say, a pair of chinos and a corduroy blazer than a dress shirt, which can look mismatched because it doesn’t match the level of formality of the rest of the outfit.

    • Barron on

      It’s not ideal, because a fitted suit has a dressy aesthetic. Traditionally, button-down collars (not button-down shirts… all dress and sport shirts are button-down, right?) are seen as more casual.

  3. Justin on

    If you have a button-down collar, do you have to wear it with the collar buttoned? Do you have a preference?