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.


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.


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.


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.


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]

Learn a few shortcuts to dressing well

Enter your first name and email, and I'll send you a free eGuide with quick and easy tips you can use today.

40 Responses

  1. James K on

    Informative with lots of links for more extended investigation; definition of a good style post.

  2. Dan D. J. on

    Good post. One thing I learned recently is that button down shirts (button down meaning the collar has buttons at the tip, not that the shirt buttons in front) are always sports shirts.

    • Barron on

      Yessir. Originally they were modeled after (or designed for? can’t remember) polo players’ shirts, and thus considered sport shirts. We wear them casually with a sport coat today, but traditionally, they shouldn’t be worn with suits.

      • james on

        I understand the history of the OCBD as being more casual because it came from sport, but Brooks Brothers sells them as dress shirts (,default,pd.html).

        Would you say this may be a shirt that is in a gray area? Possibly more of a sport shirt and more casual untucked (assuming proper length) more dressy when tucked possibly done up with a tie. Even more dress shirty (sorry to be making up words) depending on the fabric such as broadcloth or pinpoint.

        • Barron on

          I suspect they might be selling them as dress shirts because the average American man in their demographic doesn’t know the difference between the two, and most likely doesn’t care. BB probably sells a lot of OCBDs and doesn’t want their customers overlooking them because they’re no longer under the “dress shirt” category, and instead under sport shirts.

          If you’re asking a traditionalist or a stickler for rules, they’d say ABSOLUTELYNOTNOWAY is an OCBD considered dressy. But if you ask me, I feel like an OCBD can be dressed up really well, and I do it myself all the time. Tucked in, with a tie, under a sport coat, and you have yourself a smart looking dressy casual look.

          Bottom line, rock it how you want it. Only time I’d really ever stick to the rules word for word is if I’m going to a Black Tie Formal or White Tie event.

  3. Paul H. on

    I’m cursed with the blessing of incredibly broad shoulders and a narrow waist (41in chest, under arm; 52in chest, over arm; 32in waist). I’ve never found a shirt that fits well. Any suggestions for finding a properly-fitting shirt without breaking the bank?

    • Micah D on

      I have the same problem. Suit and shirt shopping are nightmares and I don’t live near a tailor. Genetics…. Sigh

      • CAM on

        See if J Hilburn has a style consultant near you. They come to measure you and deliver your suit and shirt to make sure the fit is right. Shirts range from $99-169. You choose the fabric and the styling with help from the consultant. Like having your own stylist!

        • vmd on

          I have had great success with J. Hilburn – shirts and trousers. They have a great collection of accessories as well – all very high end but great value.

        • Dawn C on

          I love hearing this! J. Hilburn is a breakout brand with a luxury:value ratio that is unparalleled! I’m so happy to represent the company!

    • Miles Benton on

      There’s a company called that travel the globe and do bespoke shirts, 3 for $150 plus duty. I have used them for over 10 years now and love the fit and quality. I’m a 44in chest with 36/37 arms and a 35in waist, so custom is must!

    • Barron on

      Yeah, Miles might be right. When you have extremely broad shoulders but a tiny waist, it’s tough getting a perfect fit off the rack. What you could do is try a place like Brooks Brothers and put on the slim fit shirt, find one that fits your chest and shoulders, and ask a sales associate if you can add darts to the back. That will shape the torso to be more fitted. It may work, it may not… you’ll have to defer to the sales rep’s expertise. Ask his / her honest opinion if darts will work in your situation.

    • ManUp on

      Not sure about that one – I’ve broad shoulders myself with a short torso despite having good average length limbs. Getting sleeves long enough can be a pain at times – that’s my main problem. I’d say start with the shoulders and arms – make sure the shirt fits your shoulders and that the sleeves are long enough. Alternatively, you could try short sleeves, but make sure they’re neat (not tight though) especially given that you’ve broad shoulders, and make sure they’re not too long or short – maybe an inch or two above the elbow. If the shirt is way too loose around the waist (whether you go for long or short sleeves), there might be a number of things you can get your tailor to do:

      1) Back Darts

      2) Convert center pleats (if present) to a permanent box pleat
      3) Taper shirt in at the sides from below the sleeves
      4) Front Darts

      All the above in combination should taper the shirt a fair bit in towards the waist, but don’t do to much of any one thing other than the box pleat. If you have a long torso, then that’s a good thing as it gives you more scope to taper in.

      Hope this helps!

    • ManUp on

      I found something that you might like – it’s not a dress shirt, but a Lacoste polo shirt that might be perfect for a person with broad shoulders and narrow waist – I really like it myself I have to say. Here’s the link…


    • Brian Hughes on

      Have you looked into Ledbury shirts at all? I hear they have a wide variety of fits. I’d even go as far as directly contacting the designers themselves just to ask what they can do to accommodate you. The company who supplies you with what you’re looking for knows customer service and how to treat it’s customers.

  4. Matt R. on

    What if my body is a bit wider in my stomach and midsection (I’m 38 so it’s getting harder to keep the flab out of that area); should I still be wearing slim fit shirts that “conform to my shape?” Otherwise I’m tall and slender (6’1 with long legs, 220 lbs, dress shirt size 16.5/34-35). I know the short answer is “exercise more” (I just don’t have a lot of spare time these days as a father of twins), but are there any particular shirt makers I should try that are of a modern cut but a bit more forgiving at the waist?

    • Barron on

      Definitely. I think the biggest misconception is that slim fit = skinny. Slim and fitted basically means that you’re not wearing the traditional, american-cut shirt, which is boxy and WAY oversized. Give the slim fits a try, you’ll be surprised.

      Start off at Brooks Brothers; their slim fit model is actually still pretty roomy but contours nicely. You’ll have to try a few on to make sure you have the right size and style of shirt (meaning traditional, slim fit, extra slim fit).

      Don’t be afraid to ask an associate for their opinion if you aren’t sure; most of them are decent judges of fit at a place like Brooks Brothers (in my experience).

    • ManUp on

      I think the most important thing is that the fit is consistent around the torso. You might like a neat fit (never go to tight) or a looser fit (but not billowing out), but whatever you chose, it’s the proportions from the chest area to the stomach that should be pretty much the same relative to the contours of your body. If you do have a little fab around the stomach and you don’t foresee yourself being able to exercise anytime soon, do allow for it. However, if you do get a shirt that lasts a long time, it might be a good idea to envisage taking it in at the waist in the future without the need to alter sleeves etc. Maybe a fairly straight cut below the sleeve that can be easily changed to the normal taper (using a tailor) upon shaping up. Back darts are also an option. You could consider center pleats that can be changed to a permanent box pleat, but that will also reduce the amount of material around the chest upon alteration – however, you may have a little fab there too, so that might be a good thing.

      Hope this helps…

      • ManUp on

        I want to correct my spelling to ‘flab’, but unfortunately, there’s no edit option on many of these fashion sites…

  5. Scooter on

    So Barron – how do you pair sport shirts into a “uniform” for work? That is, are sport shirts really more for chinos and jeans, or do you pair them with “odd trousers” and suit pants? I work in silicon valley which is very casual – no suits or ties, lots of jeans + t-shirts and gym shoes. I want to be a cut above that in terms of style but dress pants and dress shirts are kinda stale without the tie and coat. Sport shirts are more interesting and have wider ranges of colors and styles (thinking here of gingham, tattersall, plaid, madras).

    • Barron on

      You can mix it up. I think that since you’re in the valley, if you want to go denim + sport shirt tucked in + sport coat, you’d definitely place yourself a few steps above your average engineer / startup founder 🙂 If you want to go a few steps further, replace the denim with trousers like you mentioned. The sport shirt is versatile and you can experiment with it; I’m sure the outfit will turn out great.

  6. Chris Jones on

    Great tips! I actually found some sport shirts that work perfectly for me. Chaps makes a button-down collar in their “custom fit” (not really) which fits very well. And you (used to) know how hard it was to find shirts that actually fit this body shape. The sleeves are a touch long, but that’s far less of a big deal than a torso being too big.

  7. ManUp on

    I have come up with five deadly sins regarding dress shirts…

    1) Wearing shirts like corsets or tents. A dress shirt should not be tight (no bone or muscle should show through) nor should it billow out around your body. It should look nice and neat, comfortable with at least enough give in the material so that no strain is evident in the shirt when worn. A fairly loose look is safe and effective IMO. What ever about the fit around the body, make damn sure that your sleeves are not tight in any way – you need to allow for arm movement as well as giving the shirt a good natural look – long sleeves should nicely frame the body.

    2) Long Sleeves that are too short. Many sleeves have the hem finishing around the wrist – this is incorrect IMO. The sleeve should be such a length so that the cuff sits comfortably on the hand about halfway between the wrist and the top knuckle of your thumb. In addition, there should be enough slack on the sleeve so that it is possible to put your hand on your head without the cuff traveling up your arm. Don’t have too much of a droop though.

    3) Short Sleeves that are too large or too tight. There is nothing wrong IMO with a dress shirt with short sleeves – in fact, a properly made short sleeve shirt on the right body can look very sharp – even with a tie. Large short sleeves for a dress shirt are a big no IMO – they frequently throw off the shape of the shirt by giving the wing effect. Very tight short sleeves can look very unnatural and can be nearly as bad as tight long sleeves. Short sleeves should be neat (with some give around the upper arm) with the hem finishing around 2 inches above the elbow give or take – this shows clearly the narrow mid-point of the arm thereby giving the person a lighter look – avoid the fat arm effect given by short sleeves finishing well below the elbow. Neat short sleeves may also allow scope for a looser fit around the torso, depending on your body shape.

    4) Lack of tapering at the waist. This is a mortal sin IMO. Regardless of what the fit is (even loose fit), it is important that the shirt contours to the body so that the fit is reasonably consistent throughout the torso area (for tuck in shirts). There are many shirts that the lovely in the sleeves, shoulders and chest, but are spoiled by excess material at the waist (this is particularly a problem where men are relatively thin through the waist. Many of these shirts should be altered to taper in from below the sleeves IMO. I have a new shirt a little bit like this – my solution is to convert the center pleats into a box pleat the whole way down – this will put the material to much better use and make the stripes on the back run parallel to each other (I have tried it with the box pleat pinned into position).

    5) Spread Collars and skimpy ties. The best way to emphasize the vertical aspect of men is to use vertical features such as stripes and good sized pointed collars. Some spread collars do nothing towards making men look tall IMO. This is especially relevant where a tie is used. Regarding ties, lush is the key word – skinny ties can spoil what is otherwise a perfect shirt – especially if the shirt has a relatively loose look. A good broad tie with a decent knot and collar can look very professional.

    6) The plain blue shirt. At least in Ireland where I reside, I regard this as the school/uniform shirt, especially if it’s rather tight. I think plain shirts are best avoided except the classic white shirt. I would use textures (like herringbone), checks or stripes. Stripes are IMO best for enhancing height in the person. The biggest mistake in check shirts IMO is the imbalance between the horizontal and vertical stripes – for me, the vertical stripes should dominate so as the enhance the height aspect of men.

    I think the above is, at least in part, a good guide towards choosing and fitting a shirt that best suits you…


      • ManUp on

        A well fitted short sleeve dress shirt looks a hell of a lot better than a dress shirt with tight long sleeves which look horrible and cheap IMO – and especially given that most of same come to only the wrist – that to me is not a proper fit. You either want long sleeves in your dress shirt or you don’t – that’s why short sleeves should be seen as a valid option IMO…

  8. Nick on

    Hi all. I am 6’6” with an athletic body type. It has been extremely hard for me to find shirts or even pants that fit me well. I am really wanting to upgrade my wardrobe but it has been tough do this dilemma. Usually a large in shirts that is either a tailored or slim fit will fit fine around the chest but they are never long enough. I really need some help trying to find good quality clothes that fit. I also do not want to spend a fortune on it either if I don’t have to. I feel limited. Any help would be appreciated.

    • beardedman on

      Nick, I’d suggest having your shirts custom made. Not as expensive as you might think if you go to one of the web outfits like A well made shirt isn’t going to be cheap anyway and you might as well have it made for you. And then you can customize it with whatever collar, cuffs and linings you want, even monogramming if so inclined. The only off-the-rack shirts I buy anymore are PGA Tour (TM) golf shirts.

    • fitterygreg on

      You might try Thomas Pink…they have an athletic cut line that is focused specifically on more tapered body types (bigger shoulders / chest, narrower waist). Another good alternative is Hugh and Crye, they make their shirts around the idea of body type instead of measurements, you could be a good candidate for them. Hope that helps!

  9. david_lfc10 on

    Hi, I have a few shirts they are a 15″ neck and skinny fit. the hem is the same level all the way around, there are slits on both sides. I often wear them with slim ties. Is this a shirt that can be left untucked. I like the look, but I am not sure if they should be reallt