The world of fashion is necessarily a place of flux, a place where Next and New can transform into Old and Out in a New York or Milan minute. This is why the few fashion staples capable of standing the test of time must be treasured: The chic trench, the black blazer, the perfect dark-wash jeans and of course the white dress shirt.
The simplicity of the white dress shirt is the key to its appeal. It is a blank canvas, but it’s a blank canvas on display at a canvas-stretching showcase where canvas is the whole point. The Taoist concept of p’u celebrates the beauty of the uncarved block—the idea that while a well-sculpted piece of wood is a thing of wonder, we should not ignore the beauty of the wood in its unaltered state.
The white dress shirt offers no hiding places for designer or end consumer. A too-narrow collar cannot fade into the pinstriping, a misplaced second button will rise up like a double chin, detracting from the look. And speaking of double chins, if you have one, as I do, you must make sure your white dress shirts fit perfectly since there are no slimming stripes to conceal your love of zeppoli.
But while white dress shirts do showcase shortcomings, when done right they are ineffably perfect. Never the star of the show, the well-tailored white dress shirt is an irreplaceable supporting player that makes the bigger names shine. It is the straight man that yields to the punch line, the dancer that imbues excruciating movements with fluidity, the lighting designer who brings out the violet in the leading lady’s eyes.
In a world too often focused on newer and more, the white dress shirt should be celebrated for holding its own on pure quality and execution. Restraint is a trait that’s all too rare in the modern world and it’s one we often forget to appreciate.
Get Your Shirt Together
Five rules of proper shirting*
Know Thy Size
Forget small, medium and large. For a proper fit, it’s all about neck size and arm length. Many elements of a dress shirt can be tailored, but collars can’t be changed and arms can’t be made longer. Also, most people have one slightly longer arm. Get both measured, then use the higher number as the sleeve size.
One finger should always be able to fit comfortably between the shirt collar and your neck. If you can fit two fingers, it’s too loose. If you can’t jam a finger in there, close the magazine and dial 911 immediately.
The Long and Short
The shoulder seams on a dress shirt should coincide with your own shoulders. If the sleeve seam sits on top of your shoulder, you need a larger size and vice versa. Speaking of sleeves: The cuff of a dress shirt should touch the hinge of the wrist; about half an inch of shirtsleeve ought to extend beyond the jacket.
Ain’t No Collar Back
There are lots of collars in the world: Wing tip, tab, eyelet, spread, semi-spread, British spread, Italian spread. Our advice? Ignore ’em. A classic or standard collar will never look out of place, though there’s some chance a more flamboyant one will seem overwrought.
Fit and Trim
The button-down shirt is a button down look. That’s where the term comes from. When buying dress shirts, look for the slimmest fit you can comfortably wear. Rule of thumb: Snug is iffy, tight is too tight, fitted is fine. A blousy, outsized dress shirt is a non-starter. Hiding your bulk inside a baggy shirt will at best make you look bigger than you are. At worst it will make you look like a squirmy 11-year-old at a wedding.
*Rules subject to change without notice.
Building the Perfect Shirt
Calling their method “research based design” and utilizing the same “phase change materials” that helped NASA astronauts regulate body temps, the company Ministry of Supply is obsessed with simple perfection. Co-founded by Gihan Amarasiriwardena, Kit Hickey and Aman Advani, who met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ministry of Supply “hacks” modern business clothing by applying principals pioneered in rock climbing and other performance apparel. Pulse asked Amarasiriwardena, who studied chemical engineering at MIT, about his company’s approach to building their white dress shirt.
Long Island Pulse: What is important about the white dress shirt?
Gihan Amarasiriwardena: The white dress shirt is the foundation of a guy’s wardrobe. It’s a staple. It can be the basis of a suit, but can also be worn with dark denim and leather shoes. It’s a blank slate. That’s why our white dress shirt was the first thing we worked on when we started our company.
Pulse: What were you looking to create in your basic shirt?
GA: We wanted something that could transition between the different parts of your life. A work/life integration without punctuation. We believe that home life and work life and social life can all be married.
Pulse: What features did you build into your shirts?
GA: When we started, we designed the Apollo dress shirt. It’s a moisture wicking shirt made with phase change material—which is what NASA used for astronauts. In space it can be extremely hot in the sun but very cold in the shade. This material draws heat away or stores it depending on the conditions. We were talking about easing the transitions in your life. So, you’re on the subway and it’s 90 degrees, but then your office is 65 degrees. We wanted clothing that could handle those different phases of life. It’s also wrinkle free and it stretches. Some of our apparel has a brushed finish inside—like a pair of sweatpants. We added details like that, but at the same time our shirt never promotes itself, it promotes you.
Pulse: What are you hearing from customers?
GA: We launched the Apollo shirt on Kickstarter in June 2012. We were trying to raise $30,000 and we ended up with almost $430,000. It was the most funded fashion project ever at the time. People are really responding to our thinking. We’ve been able to grow from 4 employees to 13 and now we’re creating a whole wardrobe that works together: Base layers, chinos—a clothing system.
If the Shirt Fits… Excellent tailors on Long Island
Enzo’s Custom Tailors, Smithtown, (631) 265-2929
Montella Custom Tailor, Bellport Village, (631) 286-2280 montellacustomtailor.com
Saks Fifth Avenue Men’s Made to Measure, Huntington, (631) 350-1100 saksfifthavenue.com
Tyrone Men’s Clothing, Roslyn, (516) 484-3330
Victor Talbot’s, Greenvale, (516) 625-1787 victortalbots.com