Without The Shirt, Suits And Jackets Are Meaningless

We have shared about suits, blazers, sport jackets, and even dress shoes in the past. But without the shirt, these tailored garments are essentially meaningless. You can mix and match, or remove any garment, and it’s still pretty much acceptable. Remove your tie and keep your collar open? People might think you’re simply kicking off your shoes at the end of the day. Remove your jacket, keeping only your shirt and tie? Sure, you’re probably in the comfort of your own office, with your jacket hanging up somewhere nearby. But wearing just your jacket without a shirt, and your tie around your bare neck? Hmm… Now that’s a little too difficult to fathom.

A selection of different shirts hanging off a rack.
Shirts are the the essential mainstay of a man’s (or woman’s) wardrobe.
Image by Nimble Made of Unsplash

The Essential Layer In Layering Your Attire

The modern shirt evolved from what was essentially undergarment of the past. Back in the day, the only acceptable “outerwear” was the garment that evolved into the modern day jacket. Hence, the “shirt” was not something that you’d expose when you’re with polite company. But over time, what was then the outerwear, the jacket, evolved into the outer-outerwear. And the layer beneath it, the shirt, took its place as the outerwear. By then, it was no longer impolite to remove your jacket in the presence of company.

Close up of the upper chest of a mannequin wearing a burnt orange sport jacket, white shirt, and a checked tie.
Modern day’s shirt is nothing more than just a binder to hold the base outfit together with the accessories. In this case, the sport jacket with the tie. Hence, a shirt has very little exposure by design, with most of it hidden under the jacket.
Image by Jonathan Woo, courtesy of Solarex Imaging

And as the shirt evolved, it also became the piece of garment to denote the formality of the overall outfit. Just by changing your shirt, whilst keeping your jacket the same, you can fine-tune the formality that you project too.

The Different Levels Of Formality In Menswear

Whilst not exactly clearcut, there is a somewhat subtle differentiation when it comes to term “menswear”. Take note that the term “menswear” here also includes women’s business attire too. So let’s try to quantify the subtle nuances of classic menswear :-

Formality LevelTypes Of Base Attire
#1Business Formal (Conservative Dark Suit)
#2Business Semi-Formal (More “Lively” Suit)
#3Business Informal (Blazer Combo)
#4Business Casual (Sport Jacket Combo)
#5Casual (Casual Jacket Combo)
The formality levels and their corresponding types of base attire. Once you have determined the base attire, you can then start to build the rest of the outfits from the base up.

Think of the suits/jackets combo as the foundation of one’s attire. Then the shirt is the concrete that holds the foundation structure altogether. And on top of that is where you add on other accessories like neckwear, pocket squares, timepieces, jewellery, etc.

Different Classes Of Shirt

Many people won’t bat an eyelid about the type of shirt you wear, as long as you wear one. But the type of shirt that you wear can make or break your overall outfit. So understanding the different classes of shirt, and how to match them is of great importance. It’ll really help you to take charge of the personal brand image that you want to project. So here are some of the different classes of shirt, in descending order of formality :-

(1) The Classic Solid White

The solid white shirt is the staple shirt in classic menswear. It’s dressy enough to wear for formality levels #1 through #4. If you’re not sure how formal the event you’re attending, just wear a white shirt. You’re unlikely to go wrong.

Solid white shirt on a hanger, with a conservative solid maroon tie.
A solid white shirt in plain weave and spread collar is the dressiest of them all. It’s suitable to be matched with conservative dark business suits all the way down to loud and colourful sport jackets.
Image by Author

Of course, even within the realm of solid white shirts, there’ll always be subtle differences between them. The rule of thumb is that textured weave is less dressy than plain weave. And larger texture is less dressy than finer texture. In short, the less visible texture it has, the dressier it is.

(2) The Classic Solid Light Blue

Occupying the second spot, right after the solid white shirt is the solid light blue shirt. This is dressy enough to wear for formality levels between #2 and #4. Similarly to the solid white shirt, the solid light blue shirt is almost as universal as the former too.

Solid light blue shirt on a hanger, with a conservative solid maroon tie.
A solid light blue shirt in plain weave and spread collar is the next dressiest shirt after the white shirt. The lighter the blue, the dressier it is. In this case, this light blue is almost white, making it the dressiest even amongst solid blue shirts.
Image by Author

Also similar with the solid white counterpart, the solid light blue shirt also comes in variations of texture too. Likewise, the less pronounced the textured weave is, the dressier the overall shirt is.

(3) Solid Pastel (Other Than Light Blue)

The solid pastel coloured shirt is pretty much on par with the solid light blue shirt. For some unknown reason, light blue is historically “dressier” than other pastel colours. There really isn’t any other tangible reasons for this. Just like the solid light blue brethren, pastel colours are also dressy enough for formality levels between #2 and #4.

Solid cream shirt on a hanger, with a conservative solid maroon tie.
A solid cream shirt in fine herringbone weave and point collar takes the next spot in the dressiest of all shirts. Whilst any visible texture brings it down a notch, this fine herringbone weave is almost invisible, unless viewed up close.
Image by Author

Pink, lavender, cream, pale green, beige, even light grey, as long as it’s pastel, they’re equally dressy. But if you want to move up a step in formality, pick solid light blue.

(4) Stripe Patterned

Next down the formality scale is stripes (usually vertical). Depending on the base colour, and how bold the stripes are, it’s suitable for formality levels between #2 and #4. The rule of thumb is that white base with fine stripes is the most formal of the lot. Then comes the pastel coloured base with fine stripes. The bolder the stripes, the more casual it’ll appear.

Solid stripe shirt with white base and alternating blue and black bold vertical stripes on a hanger, with a conservative solid maroon tie.
A striped shirt with a white base and alternating blue and black stripes and spread collar. The lighter the base colour, the dressier it’ll be. In this case, white is the dressiest. However, the high contrast and bold stripes tone down the dressiness even more.
Image by Author

When you have medium to dark coloured base, you knock it down the formality levels between #3 and #5. Darker base colours with bold stripes, you go even further down the formality levels, this time between #4 and #5.

(5) Check Patterned

Similarly to stripes, white or pastel base with fine checks is suitable for formality levels between #3 and #4. But darker base and/or bolder checks, and you knock it down to formality levels between #4 and #5.

A plaid shirt with white base and a high contrast blue checks in geometric intervals and button-down collar. Whilst checks are a tad less dressy than stripes, the same rule applies. The lighter the base colour, the dressier it is. And the louder the pattern, the less dressy it is. In this case, the high contrast and button-down collar are characteristics of a casual shirt.
Image by Author

If you have very bold or multiple coloured checks (e.g. Madras check or Tartan plaid), keep it strictly to #5 only. These are “fun” patterns, and are not business appropriate.

(6) Contrasting Collared Shirt

Usually contrasting collar shirts come with plain white collar (sometimes cuffs too) and some sort of coloured or striped bodies. The dissimilar collar hails from the days of detachable collars, which are usually solid white. Depending on the body colour/pattern, it can be suitable for formality levels between #2 and #4.

Blue/grey fine stripe shirt with a white contrasting collar on a hanger, with a conservative solid maroon tie.
A blue/grey fine striped shirt with a white contrasting cut-away collar. Whilst the ultra-fine and low contrast stripes indicate a fairly dressy shirt, the presence of a white contrasting collar elevates it a notch higher than one made completely from the same material.
Image by Author

The formality is based on the body colour/pattern as mentioned above. Only that it’s always one notch above the latter. Nobody really knows why, but this is the accepted norm.

(7) Textured Shirt

Up until now we’re referring only to “standard” business shirtings (cotton or cotton-mix fabric). When we go beyond this “standard” shirtings, the formality level drops pretty drastically. Highly textured fabrics like linen, chambray and corduroy are inherently casual in nature. They’re only suitable for formality levels between #4 and #5.

A chambray shirt is by definition a casual shirt. Also known colloquially as the “denim” shirt, they normally feature button-down collar, another indication of its casual nature.
Image by Author

Want to express that you’re attending a function for pleasure and not business? Then this is the best choice to express your identity and mood.

(8) Non-Shirt Alternatives

Non-shirt alternatives refer to garments made of knitted fabrics instead of woven shirtings. These cover everything of t-shirt derivatives, like polo-shirts, mock-necks, roll-necks, jumpers, etc.

Solid medium brown roll-neck on a hanger.
A roll-neck jumper is considered one of the most casual garments short of a polo-shirt. The roll-neck keeps the wearer’s neck covered, hence equivalent to wearing a collared shirt buttoned all the way up.
Image by Author

Whilst solid coloured garments made of finer knitted fabric are suitable for formality level #4, this is usually the exception. The safest bet is to limit these garments only for formality level #5.

Planning Your Outfit Around The Formality

Most people have shirts to cover both extreme ends of the spectrum. However, not many have shirts to evenly populate across the entire spectrum. So if you want to project your personal brand as one who’s well-versed in all occasions, plan your wardrobe accordingly. Having at least one type of garment for each level of formality will stretch your image projection far and wide. The trick is simply not to have too many pieces of any type of shirt. Have one or two of each type, and populate them across the entire formality spectrum.

A complete outfit neatly folded and laid out on a flat surface, consisting of the items as described in the caption.
A typical casual outfit, with a foundation consisting of dark wash jeans and khaki sport jacket. The white/blue abstract printed shirt acts as the binder to hold the whole outfit together, including the accessories like the dark tie and dark brown Oxford shoes with contrasting soles, laces and burnished toes.
Image by Benjamin Rascoe of Unsplash

Do You Have A Shirt For Every Occasion?

What about you? Do you have a shirt for every occasion? If not, do you need help with building your wardrobe? Perhaps you already have too many articles for too few formality levels? In any way, reach out to Solarex Imaging to discuss your personal branding objectives. And no, you don’t need to hire them to get their opinions. So don’t worry too much, and reach out to them right now. In the meantime, leave a comment below, and share with us if you have suitable shirts for each formality level.

Do you have shirts to cover the whole formality spectrum?
3 votes

About CHOW Wei Ming

Brand consultant, photographer, creative director, storyteller, and a true believer of the power of visual communications. Outwardly expresses a friendly disposition, but hides a perfectionist nature deep inside him.

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