Dress Shirt vs Sport Shirt: What’s the Difference?

by   |  in Business Attire

Do you know the differences 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 plenty of differences, as you’ll soon see. Let’s go over the the subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences below, so you’re wearing the right shirt at the right time.

Dress Shirt vs Sport Shirt Style

Dress shirt (left) vs. sport shirt (right), both by Ralph Lauren

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.

Summary of Style Differences

Dress ShirtSport Shirt
More conservative colorsCan have bolder, brighter colors
Plain, simple stylingMay have more decorative features and styling
Stiffer collar and placketSofter collar and placket (lighter interfacing)

Dress Shirt Sizing vs Sport Shirt 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. This is similar to how suit jacket and sport coat sizing works.

Sizing differs between brands, and even models under the same brand name, so it’s important to try on a bunch of different shirts.

In general, if you typically wear a 15 x 32/33 (that’s 15″ neck, 32/33″ sleeve), you’d most likely be a 38 or 40 in European sizing. Again, you have to try on a bunch of different sizes to nail the right fit for you, since everyone has different shapes and proportions.

By contrast, sport shirts’ sizing is even more general, and are usually sized S, M, L, like regular T-shirts and jackets.

Summary of Sizing Differences

Dress ShirtSport Shirt
Neck x sleeve length (15 x 32/33)S, M, L, etc.
European sizing (38, 40, 42, etc.)S, M, L (same thing)

Dress Shirt vs Sport Shirt Fabrics

Here are some shirt fabric-related terms to know so this section makes sense:

  • Cotton: a type of fiber
  • Yarn: Cotton fibers are spun into yarn
  • Fabric: Cotton yarn is woven together to create cotton fabric
  • Weave: The style and pattern in which cotton yarn is woven

So when you see terms like broadcloth, twill, pinpoint, oxford, these are different weave styles. A broadcloth dress shirt and an oxford sport shirt will look similar from afar, but up close will be different.

Dress shirts are typically made with cottons of finer weaves. When I say finer, I mean tighter weave, and smaller thread.

Broadcloth (top) vs oxford (bottom). The guys at Proper Cloth have a well-illustrated guide to different shirt weaves.

Dress shirts, because of the fabric’s tight weave and fine yarn, will have a slight sheen to them. This sheen adds to the dressiness of the shirt.

By contrast, sport shirts are less formal. (Traditionally, they were designed for “sport”). If you consider the popular Oxford cloth shirt, the fabric uses a heavier thread and a much looser weave than your typical broadcloth dress shirt.

Summary of Fabric Differences

Dress ShirtSport Shirt
Finer, smaller, and / or plain weaves (smooth)More texture (can be seen and felt)
Slight sheen to the fabricNo sheen

Silhouette and Fit of Dress Shirts vs Sport Shirts

There are many different silhouettes, or fits, your dress shirts and sport shirts can have.

In general, a “slim” fit, relative to your proportions, is best. What does this look like?

  • You want enough room in the chest, shoulders, back, and sleeves to comfortably move around, while minimizing extra fabric
  • A slight taper in the body of the shirt, again, to minimize extra fabric, while making sure none of the buttons are pulling

OK, this is tough to describe. Your body is different from mine, so there is no exact measurement I can tell you to follow. But in general, you want your shirt to be trim throughout. It should conform to your shape and taper at the torso. (The sit-down test is useful, if you haven’t tried it.)

Keep this in mind:

  • One man’s perfect fit may be labeled as “slim fit”, while a “traditional fit” could be slim enough on a bigger guy.
  • What one brand considers Slim, another brand may label as Traditional

Find brands where you can dial in your fit, and stick with those brands, for the easiest shopping experience.

How Brooks Brothers defines its extra slim fit compared to its slim and traditional fit.

For example, I know that with Uniqlo’s OCBDs, I wear a slim medium, or a regular small. Both work, though I actually prefer a regular small, because it gives me more room in the body.

In J.Crew shirting, I’m also a slim medium or a regular small. The more you try shirts from different brands, you’ll start to hone in on the best sizes and fits for you.

If it’s too tight, but it technically is your size, try sizing up or experimenting with a different model or brand.

Summary of Silhouette / Fit Differences

Both your dress shirts and sport shirt should fit similarly: trim, but not tight, with enough room to move around comfortably, but without excess fabric to where the shirt looks billowy or sloppy.

You’ll have to try on a bunch of different brands and shirts, and once you find the stores and fits that work best for you, stick with those.

Dress Shirt Length vs Sport Shirt Length

This is one of the biggest differentiators between sport and dress shirts, in my opinion. My friend Andrew at Primer put together this great article that easily illustrates the differences in length between sport shirts and dress shirts.

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 throughout the day, your shirt stays tucked in.

Sport shirts have lower side seams and shorter shirttails, so you can wear them untucked.

In general, when you’re wearing a sport shirt untucked, you ideally want the shirt to hit no lower than the bottom of your back pocket.

Summary of Differences In Length

Dress ShirtSport Shirt
longer in the bodyshorter in the body
hem often covers butt and crotch areahem ends above the bottom of zipper or mid-back pocket
must be worn tucked in onlycan be worn tucked or untucked

A Summary, And The Bottom line

When trying to figure out if a shirt is a dress shirt or a sport shirt, you can check for a few things:

  • Is the fabric smooth with a slight sheen (dress shirt), or slightly more textured with a visible weave (sport shirt)?
  • Does the shirt have decorative stitching, epaulets, or button pockets? (It’s a casual sport shirt)
  • Does the shirt hem go past your butt, and look like it’s meant to be tucked in? (Dress shirt)

Of course there are exceptions to everything. For example, plaid-patterned dress shirts exist, oxford cloth dress shirts exist. But the more you study your shirting, the quicker you’ll be able to pick up the slight differences.

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