The Right Shirt and Collar

"The shirt is the piece of clothing that is closest to your body; it needs to act almost like your second skin and cotton performs this function the best," says Alan Flusser, author of Clothes and the Man.  For such an important companion, you want to be sure that it is enhancing your professional image. Gone are the days when blue and discreet stripes were the only shirt options for the businessman. Today there are many choices in fabric, styles and colors; selecting carefully will ensure both professionalism and comfort.

Let's examine the fabric, color, collar, cuffs and fit--all elements that should be considered when purchasing a shirt.


professional dress men - shirt - collarFine-quality dress shirts are made of 100 percent cotton. Cotton "breathes" and absorbs moisture which allows the body to cool itself. Another option is cotton blends that are at least 60 percent cotton. Depending on the weave and the finish, the fabric makes the shirt formal or casual. The two basic weaves are the broadcloth which is smooth and has a silky finish appropriate for a dress shirt and the oxford which has a rougher finish and is used in a button-down style. Wearing an oxford shirt with a navy striped or solid suit sends a mixed signal--the suit is formal and the shirt is more casual. The oxford shirt, however, is a good complement to a blazer or sport coat. Pinpoint oxford is similar to oxford but is made from a much finer yarn; it is more tightly woven which gives the fabric a smoother, silkier and, hence, more formal look. It falls in between the broadcloth and the oxford in terms of dressiness. End-on-end is in a similar category as the pinpoint; one weave runs white threads in one direction and blue or pink in the other. The best fabrics on the market are the Egyptian and Sea Island cottons, which are finer, tighter and feel like silk to the touch. Tone-on-tone is a design that uses two or more tones of the same color giving the fabric a shiny effect; it is used for very formal shirts.


As opposed to several years ago, today you have more options for shirt colors. Colored shirts make you look more approachable and can be used to create a different look appropriate to any occasion. When the pastel shade looks almost white with just a tint of color, it makes the shirt more formal. White and soft white shirts will give you a more formal  look. Changing your pure white shirt for a French blue or a deep gray  will tone down the power look of your dark navy suit, making you more approachable. The darker the color of your shirt, the less formal it becomes. If you wear sport coats and blazers to work, or you work in a creative field, you will have more freedom to experiment with colors; try deep mauve, purple, deep green and deep burgundy.

There are options besides solid shirts. We invite our seminar participants to "Go ahead--dare to be striped."  Remember that stripes on a white background are more formal, such as a white shirt with burgundy or navy stripes. White stripes on a color background are less formal, such as a blue shirt with white or gray stripes. 


Since the shirt is the closest clothing item to your face, it must complement your physical proportions. You want to look for balance. For example, if your face is broad and your neck is thick, a tiny collar will look out of balance. At the same time, a shirt with long points will overwhelm a small man with delicate features. There are two details to consider when selecting the right collar style: the spread relates to the distance between the points of the collar which can be narrow, medium or wide; and the points length which can be short, average or long. For balance, follow this chart to select the best shirt collar for your face shape.

Rectangular-Square Jaw

  • average to slightly short collar

  • average to slightly wide spread

  • standard collar

  • button-down

  • tab collar

  • pin collar

    : long points 


  • standard collar
  • average to slightly long collar
  • average to slightly narrow spread
  • tab collar
  • pin collar
  • button-down

    Avoid: wide and short collars

Inverted Triangle or Diamond

  • standard collar
  • slightly short collar
  • average to slightly spread collar

    Avoid: long points, a pin collar and button-down

Oval or Oblong

  • standard collar
  • slightly wide spread
  • short length
  • button-down

    Avoid: long points and a round collar

Round slightly wide spread

  • slightly short collars
  • button-down

    Avoid: round collars, narrow spreads and long points

There should be a balance between the shirt collar and the tie. For a standard collar and a button-down collar, the half-Windsor knot or the four-in hand are the preferred choice. The tab collar needs a tighter four-in hand knot and a wide spread collar looks balanced with a half-or full-Windsor knot. With the new woven tie fabrics, the four-in-hand knot is the most recommended for all shirt collars.


When choosing a shirt, it is very important that it fit right. A study conducted by Cornell University found that nearly 70 percent of businessmen were wearing their collars too tight. The reality is that shirts shrink and necks thicken. When buttoned, the collar should be loose enough to comfortably insert one finger between your neck and the collar. If you can't do this, not only will you be uncomfortable but your tie won't sit properly and the points of the shirt will not lay correctly. On the other hand, if the shirt is too large, it is equally unprofessional. If you have a problem with your neck size, consider investing in custom-made shirts. It would be a wise choice since the shirt is framing your face.  

A note on quality: a fine collar is always stitched around the edges to stiffen and hold the folded material in place. The stitches should be in a single row and not more than one-quarter inch from the collar edge. The finer the shirt, the finer the stitching.


Shirt cuffs are another element to consider when selecting shirts. The two basic styles are the single or barrel cuff, with one or two buttons, and the double or French cuff. French cuffs are dressier and the required cuff links let you express your personality. For the most elegant look, select simple, small-sized gold or silver, mother-of-pearl or matte finish stone like onyx. If you choose metal it should match the metal of your watch: silver-toned with a silver watch and gold-toned with a gold watch. If you don't want the added investment of cuff links, try a pair of simple, colorful silk knots.

Also remember that your cuff should extend one-fourth inch below the jacket if you wear a single cuff and one-half inch below for double cuffs. Showing no cuff or wearing short sleeves with suits is not acceptable, regardless of the weather. The "guayavera," worn on many islands, is the only short-sleeve overshirt that is appropriate for social and public functions if worn by the local businessmen. Otherwise, even in the islands, your regular long-sleeve shirt is the required business look.


More and more men are having their ready-to-wear shirts monogrammed with two or three initials. Keep your monogram as understated as possible. A monogram on the collar or the cuff invites too much attention. If the shirt has a pocket, center your initials on it; If the shirt lacks a pocket, as many custom-made shirts do, have the monogram placed approximately five or six inches up from the waist, centered on the left side of the shirt. And please use your own initials, not the shirt designer's; after all you own the shirt, not him!


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