When it comes to black tie, not any old white shirt will do. You need a dress shirt. Why? Because a dress shirt is formal, and it’s part of the black-tie dress code. And though we encourage you to see beyond stuffy old menswear rules, we also believe you’ve got to know the rules to break the rules.
So here’s the lowdown on dress shirts.
There was a time when our most formal shirts were just seen as underwear. Their job was to keep waistcoats clean. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that stiff high collars and immaculate white cloths became a status symbol.
We have British fops like Beau Brummel to thank for the stiff-collar shirt’s rise in the ranks. Only rich people could follow their lead – you needed to have stacks of cash to keep washing your white shirt, after all.
There’s still a whiff of high-society about them today. Pristine white dress shirts are reserved for formal events – for the nights when we want to go all out with a luxurious outfit and impress.
But what is the difference between a dress shirt and an Oxford? There are three things to know, and it comes down to the collar, the cuffs and the placket.
You have two collar options for dress shirts nowadays. There’s the wing (very classic 1880s) and turned-down (see the Duke of Windsor circa 1920s).
Also sometimes called wingtip, the wing collar is the most formal dress shirt. This collar stands up stiffly with small points pressed to stick out – and if you’re sticking to the rules, tuck these pointed wings behind your bow tie.
Turned-down collars are much like the ones on your smart business shirt. You’ll need one of these if you want to wear a normal tie, or no tie at all. And if you were wondering whether it was OK to wear your dress shirt untucked, we’d advise you don’t, seeing as they’re designed for formal events.
There was a time when the collar was separate from the shirt. It’s because washing machines weren’t invented at the time, and an ingenious New Yorker found a way to detach the collar to wash it more often. You don’t need to worry about that anymore, but you do need to give the collar a good iron to help it keep its shape.
One final note: you can work out your dress shirt size from the collar. The sizing is in inches, so you’ll need to dig out your tape measure to work out which size is right for your neck.
Dress shirts always have double cuffs (sometimes called French cuffs). You’ll need cufflinks but make sure you keep them simple. Black tie is supposed to be upmarket, but not ostentatious. Small studs in black or mother of pearl are ideal.
Your placket is the strip of fabric down the centre of your shirt that your buttons are sewn onto. On dress shirts, your placket will either conceal your buttons or host stud buttons.
For concealed buttons, there’s an extra layer of material to hide them. It creates a clean finish. Stud buttons are mini disks, usually in black, that look really neat and tidy. Plus, they create a subtle match with your black bow tie, trousers, accessories – the list goes on.
There was a time in the 70s when dress shirts had elaborate ruffles down the front – and they give a retro feel now if that’s what you’re after – but for the most part, today’s more about streamlined looks.
Some dress shirts have pleats down the front (again, very Duke of Windsor). It’s just a styling thing and very much optional for more formal occasions.