“There are other measures of self-respect for a man, than the number of clean shirts he puts on every day”, so said Ralph Waldo Emerson. I would like to know what these are – as yet I have not been furnished with details. However, triviality aside, Emerson’s mockery of the pride a gentleman takes in a shirt is only half-strength; shirts are terribly important, and the donning of a good shirt should give a man pause for a little self-congratulation.
What, you might ask, constitutes a good shirt? It is not, as some would have us believe, price; good shirts are more expensive than average shirts on the whole, but it is a mistake to think that the more expensive the shirt the better it is. It does depend on the occasion, but a classic collar and cut of shirt will look good anywhere with anything. The quality of cotton, the shape of the collar and the cut of the trunk of the shirt will determine its goodness. It doesn’t take a Jermyn Street tailor to notice the differences either; comparing a simple high street £20-£30 shirt with a Sea Island cotton, semi-fitted cutaway from Turnbull & Asser is like comparing sunglasses to milk at times – you wonder if they are even in the same product bracket.
Having said that, there has been a distinct improvement in the quality of shirts available on the high street; the more upmarket high street brands like Massimo Dutti are good for basic colours. The budget shops are generally a waste of time for this sort of thing unfortunately; the cheapness of material, the mass of cotton threads hanging off the garment and the lack of refinement are not at all set-off by the incredibly low price. It is worth it investing a little bit more than £12 in a shirt and there are some important things to consider when doing so.
Shirts are generally ordered according to collar size and sleeve length. However, slimmer fits of shirt are making their way onto the market. Fashion shirts will be available in the cut of the moment, and sold in high street shops up and down the country. However, traditional shirt retailers such as Hawes & Curtis or Thomas Pink will manufacture classic shapes whilst offering the occasional semi-fitted shirt which gives a man a slimmer silhouette.
The range of collars can be split into two; those a man would wear to work, and those he should not. For example, I don’t approve of button-down collars in the office. They are casual, originally meant for polo players whose collars were always flapping in the wind when galloping around. They belong in the latter group. Soft collars and extremely large collars also belong here. My favourite type of collar is the cutaway, which belongs in the former group. Much favoured by Ralph Lauren in his Black and Purple Lable collections, cutaways are one of the most elegant collars and when manufactured well, can be flattering and stylish. Do not listen to the fashionistas who claim the cutaway is dead; real style never dies. However, if fashion is for you, then smaller collars are the dernier cris.
Double or single cuffs? Fashion is dictating the latter at the moment; however the best shirts are always made with double-cuffs. I prefer double cuffs simply for the opportunity of wearing cuff-links of silver or coloured silk. Many City men loathe double-cuffs; some see them as the height of claustrophobic formality. However, those not looking to emulate Steve Jobs’ office sartorial style will probably find them irresistible.
Above all, where you can, get yourself measured for your collar and sleeve size. You’d be surprised how many shirt buyers have been buying the wrong size for many years.