To avoid any confusion straight off the bat, the definition of a dress shirt is different in the UK and the US. In the former, it is generally used to define any shirt suitable for formalwear, such as black tie, whereas in the States it means any smart shirt. So for the purposes of this article, we’ll encompass all smart shirts.
Perhaps the best way to define a dress shirt is by asserting what it isn’t: casual. A dress shirt is primarily designed to be worn with tailoring and will therefore come with a stiff collar with an interfacing, rather than the soft structureless collar of the casual shirt. Casual collars also tend to be short, or button-down styles, whereas the dress shirt is larger to afford room for a tie.
Other key details that separate the dress shirt are the hem, which is always longer and more curved than a casual shirt (since it is always meant to be tucked into one’s trousers); the sleeves, which also tend to be longer in order to peep out of the end of one’s jacket sleeves; and the cuffs, which are constructed with a stiffer interfacing and can come in a variety of smart finishes, from the curved single-button cuff to the French cuff, the latter worn with cufflinks.
While both dress shirts and casual shirts are typically made from cotton, the former are most often cut from smooth cotton yarns such as poplin, twill and marcella. All of these fabrics have a good natural lustre, making them ideal to wear with smart tailoring. Casual shirts, on the other hand, will often be made from brushed cotton for a softer, more textural handle.
Key Dress Shirt Fabrics
The Cotton Poplin Shirt
Cotton poplin features a very tight plain weave with fine horizontal ribs, giving it strength, smoothness and lustre, all of which makes it a prime choice for a dress shirt.
As far as the handle goes, poplin is typically lightweight and crisp to the touch, and is naturally wrinkle-resistant. A good proportion of high-quality dress shirts will be constructed from poplin.
The Oxford Cloth Shirt
As far as dress shirts go, the Oxford cloth is probably the most casual of cotton yarns, but is still perfectly acceptable for business attire.
Usually reserved for Oxford cloth button-downs (aka OCBDs), the weave of the Oxford cloth can sometimes have just the slightest hint of a nap, giving it a very subtle texture which can be an excellent way to take the formal edge off a business suit.
The structured collar also means that it can be used to dress up a pair of chinos, too.
The Cotton Twill Shirt
SImilar to poplin, cotton twill is a strong plain-weave fabric characterised by diagonal lines, and is generally used for thicker garments such as jackets and trousers.
Nevertheless, it is often used to construct heavier weight dress shirts, ideal for the colder months. The diagonal weave provides visual interest, too.
Denim and chambray fabrics are also cotton twills.
The Piqué (or Marcella) Cotton Shirt
Usually reserved for formal dress shirts (more on those below), cotton piqué features raised parallel cords, and is thought to have been invented expressly for the purposes of white tie, the most formal of all dress codes.
It is a thicker, stiffer fabric than poplin or twill, thus much better at holding its shape through the bib of the formal shirt. Today, it’s typically worn with black tie ensembles.
Formal Dress Shirts
Formal dress shirts differ from everyday dress shirts in the fabric (which as we just mentioned, is typically cotton piqué), but there are also a number of variations which you would only wear with black tie, such as pleated fronts and ruffled bibs.
Some formal dress shirts will also require studs to fasten, usually in the form of black onyx, which can be a very elegant feature. They will more often than not come with double cuffs (aka French cuffs) so that the wearer can personalise their outfit with cufflinks.
For white tie, the main difference is the collar style, which must always be a wing collar (preferably detachable) and require a stud fastening. The front two panels of the white tie shirt will also be made up of additional layers of marcella cotton, often heavily starched, to create a stiff, smooth effect.
The Best Men’s Dress Shirt Brands
Founded by Nick Wheeler from his bedroom at Bristol University in 1986, Charles Tyrwhitt (Nick’s middle names, after an ancestor) has grown into one of the biggest off-the-peg shirtmakers on London’s renowned Jermyn Street.
Providing high-quality dress shirts in poplin, twill and Oxford cloth, Tyrwhitt’s range is vast and eclectic.
With three house cuts, and a variety of non-iron cotton cloths, too, CT’s collection is perfect for everyday business attire.
Shop now at Charles Tyrwhitt
Ede & Ravenscroft
London’s oldest tailor, Ede & Ravenscroft was established in 1689, so the fact it still to this day remains a fixture at the foot of Savile Row on Burlington Gardens tells you all you need to know about the house’s prestige.
Naturally, the brand has an excellent collection of classic point and spread collar shirts in Sea Island cotton, twill and Oxford cloth, but is perhaps best known for its contrast collar cutaway shirts.
Shop now at Ede & Ravenscroft
Sweden’s Eton has been producing premium dress shirts since 1928. In that time, it’s honed its craft to perfection. The label’s shirts are made from the finest materials and put together using state-of-the-art technology to guarantee perfection.
Fit-wise, shoppers can choose from four different cuts to ensure the right fit for any body type and the high-quality construction means they’re all built to last.
Shop now at Eton
Turnbull & Asser
Turnbull & Asser is the patriarch of Jermyn Street, and while its primary business is in bespoke shirts, the Royal Warrant shirtmaker does an incredible line of off-the-peg dress shirts for the discerning gent.
All handmade in their Gloucester, UK factory using hand-worked sewing machines operated by seamstresses with a wealth of experience, Turnbull & Asser’s shirts set the bar for quality and craftsmanship.
It’s also the place to visit when in need of a formal dress shirt, with a variety of stunning options available for black tie and morning dress.
Shop now at MR PORTER
Another of the Jermyn Street pack, T.M.Lewin was established in 1898 and has since been a go-to shirt destination for those seeking high-quality poplin, twill and Oxford dress shirts.
Lewin’s range of collars and cuts is broad and diverse, and represents excellent value for money (four formal shirts for £150 is one of the better deals we could find).
Shop now at TM Lewin
Hawes & Curtis
A Jermyn Street fixture since 1913, Hawes & Curtis are another coveted British shirtmaker with an excellent reputation for modern dress shirts, and one of the widest range of fits on the luxury shirt market.
In 2022, 79% of the brand’s cotton came from the Better Cotton initiative, which ensures excellent provenance and continues to improve environmental practices, as well as farmer/worker livelihoods.
Shop now at Hawes & Curtis
One of Jermyn Street’s bespoke shirtmakers, Emma Willis has been crafting some of the finest shirts money can buy since she set up shop in 1999.
Cut by hand in an 18th century townhouse in the centre of Gloucester, UK, Willis is renowned for her attention to detail, which plays out in an exceptional range of ready-to-wear shirts, constructed from some stunning fabrics, such as a 170s Swiss cotton poplin and a cotton-cashmere blend amongst others.
Shop now at MR PORTER
Founded in 1910 by Harold Budd, this London favourite, based in the Piccadilly Arcade, is a traditional British shirtmaker, and the only remaining to have a working cutting room above the shop.
As well as providing one of the best bespoke offerings in the capital, Budd’s ready-to-wear collection is no less exceptional, with particular mention for its popular Edwardian stripe style that dates back to the 1930s.
Its collection of marcella dress shirts is right up there with the very best, too.
Shop now at Budd London
Lauded French brand Charvet boasts the honour of having opened the world’s very first shirt shop on 28 Place Vendôme in Paris, where it remains today.
Primarily a bespoke shirtmaker, the Parisian house has an unrivalled reputation for quality (and a price tag to match).
Its clientele, both historical and contemporary, is as illustrious as it gets, so if a Charvet shirt happens to be living in your wardrobe, just know that you’re in very good company indeed.
Shop now at MR PORTER
100 Hands is one of those industry secrets that sartorial aficionados have tried to keep to themselves, but the cat is now out of the bag. Based in Amsterdam, the company makes exceptionally beautiful handmade shirts, each of which requires approximately 34 hours of handwork.
If you’re in the market for the best off-the-peg white shirt that money can buy then you can stop looking now: 100 Hands’ version is completely hand-sewn using 100% 170s Giza cotton in a superfine twill with a cutaway collar.
Shop now at 100 Hands
4 Classic Dress Collar Styles
Dress shirt collar styles are many and quite eclectic, but they all share a degree of structure that casual shirts do not have. Dress shirt collars are designed to house ties and thus need to be firm enough to frame the knot, whether a small four-in-hand or a more robust Windsor.
The following collar styles are the ones you’ll reach for the most.
The Point Collar
Classic business as usual collar, defined by pointed tips with a relatively small gap between them so that none of your tie is exposed besides the knot itself.
The Spread Collar
Essentially the same as the point collar only the collar tips are further apart, better for accommodating a bigger tie knot.
The spreads can of course vary; you’ll often see ‘semi-spread’ denoting something in between a spread and point collar.
The Cutaway Collar
Even wider than the spread collar is the cutaway collar, which features a much more severe parting of the collar tips, to the extent that ‘extreme cutaways’ reveal a good deal of the neck of the tie.
The Tab Collar
The tab collar is typically a point collar with a single button tab fastening that sits behind the tie knot, with the sole purpose of elevating the knot.
It’s quite unique and has been a regular feature of Daniel Craig’s James Bond.