The In-Between Wardrobe, Part I: The Shirt
The “In-Between Wardrobe” is a series of articles aimed at helping men find items that will play a versatile role in their closet. It is written with the idea that most men don’t wear extremely formal or casual clothing on a regular basis; they usually need items that are somewhere in the middle. See all articles in the series here.
The in-between shirt is not necessarily hard to find, but many guys tend to get lost along the way. Perhaps it is because every shirt with a collar and buttons is referred to as a “dress shirt” these days; to understand what we’re looking for in an in-between shirt, it’s important to understand that not all collared shirts are dress shirts. The in-between shirt should be at home with denim and chinos or with a sportcoat; some should be able to be worn with a tie, and all of them should look at home in a business-casual office. Here are the general parameters for finding an in-between shirt:
1. When it comes to fabric, texture and pattern are your friends.
One of the themes you’ll see in this series is the emphasis on choosing the right material. This holds true for shirts; a material like oxford cloth, chambray, linen, or madras will be easier to wear with a wide variety of clothing when compared to standard dress shirt fabrics like broadcloth, pinpoint, and twill.
Likewise, pattern can help reduce the formality of a shirt. Having a patterned fabric is certainly not a requirement (and having a few solid shirts is a good starting point), but having some simple stripes and checks can aid in reinforcing the shirt’s informal nature.
2. Color plays a role, but is less important than you think. A while back I spoke about my allegiance to my one color rule, which states (unsuprisingly) that I keep my dress shirts to only one color, or a pattern with one color and white. There is a bit of wiggle room when it comes to more casual shirting fabrics like madras, but when in doubt it’s easiest to stick to this rule. Let your shirt’s casualness be shown with the texture and details like pockets and soft collars. Which reminds me…
3. Respect the collar. One of the clearest indicators of a shirt’s formality (besides the fabric) is the collar. Like I’ve said before, the collar size and shape is a critical part of the shirt, and that remains the case with the more casual options. For casual shirts, it is best to seek out unfused collars. These collars will appear less “stiff” than fused collars and will be more at home with casual clothing. The quintessential unfused collar is the traditional button-down, a la Brooks Brothers (keep in mind that not every button-down collar is unfused, but the traditionally styled ones often are). Other collar styles like spread, semi-spread, and cutaway can work in casual cases as well, if they are soft and unfused. Ideally, the collar points should measure at least 3” so that they don’t look too trendy and can hold a tie well. For the record: although fused collars are often poo-poo-ed by blogger types, they still serve a good purpose; however, they are not of much use in this case.
4. To tuck or not to tuck? I have no problem with “short” shirts that are intended to be worn untucked. They can be a great casual option to have in the arsenal (and it’s how many men wear their button-up shirts all the time, for better or worse). However, having a shirt that only looks good untucked is not as versatile and therefore against the mantra of the “in-between wardrobe.” Try to shoot for something that is still tuck-able, even if it is on the short side (if you do want a shirt that you only plan on wearing untucked, refer to this guide by Primer Magazine).
5. The devil is in the details. Most in-between shirts should feature casual details like pockets, standard plackets, and button cuffs. These rules can be broken, but it’s usually the safest way to go. Avoid dressier details like french cuffs or contrast collars (actually, just avoid those collars in general).
6. Beyond the Button-Up. Popovers and polos can add a bit of variety to an in-between shirt wardrobe. Keep in mind, though, that these should ideally feature long sleeves to increase their formality (short sleeves are great, but they are less versatile due to their highly casual nature). Also remember that these choices should never be worn with neckwear, unlike the casual shirt.
Looking for some places to find items like these? There are many, but I’ve highlighted some of my favorites below. Feel free to add your favorite in-between shirts in the comments.