Dress Shirt Vs. Casual Shirt - What makes the difference?

What to Wear?

Back in the day, it was a little bit easier to know exactly what to wear. First of all, there were far less clothing options. Secondly, everyone adhered more strictly to dress codes depending on what they were doing and which events they planned on attending. However, modern fashion is not so cut and dry.

man deciding what to wear

Today, the lines between dressy and casual are starting to blur. People are seen wearing a suit coat over a dress shirt with jeans to nice events, or a plaid shirt with a bow tie and suspenders for their every day look. On top of it, the world of men's fashion is flooded with so many choices that picking out simple a button-up shirt, a staple of many outfits, can be downright overwhelming.

While dress code rules have become widely more flexible, you still want to be dressed properly to be totally comfortable in your surroundings. Understanding the characteristics that differentiate a dress shirt from a casual shirt will help you to easily choose the right shirt for every occasion. Read on to discover how to mindfully select a button-up dress shirt or casual shirt every time you get dressed.

What Are Your Choices?

man choosing white dress shirt

In this article we are comparing button down, collared dress shirts and casual shirts, not collared shirts and tee shirts. Dress shirts and casual shirts can be subdivided into two basic categories, each. For dress shirts, this includes formal and dress. The subcategories for casual shirts are everyday casual and sporty.

Formal

Formal dress shirts are long sleeved button ups that are required for black tie events, but they typically are not worn otherwise. This makes it easy to know when it is appropriate to wear this ultra dressy shirt. Formal dress shirts are almost always white, so you can't really go wrong with color selection here, either.

man wearing black dress shirt

Formal dress shirts have winged collars. Winged collars are stiffly starched, with short points that stick out nearly horizontal, reminiscent of the wings of a soaring bird. This type of collar is meant to be paired with a bow tie. The formal dress shirt is a necessary component to any tuxedo.

Dress Shirt

The standard dress shirt is also a button down shirt with long sleeves, but the collar is a more comfortable turn down style. It is considered a highly versatile fashion staple for modern men. However, the dress shirt was originally designed to be worn for business, as a semi-formal option. Today, dress shirts come in a wider range of colors, cuts, and collar and cuff styles, and it is still the most popular shirt to wear with a suit, or on its' own, for work.

man wearing light blue button down dress shirt

Unless an occasion specifically calls for black tie, a dress shirt can be worn to a wide range of events, including weddings, funerals, dinner parties, interviews, business meetings, and more. People will also pair a dress shirt with jeans for a more casual look outside of the office. This has to be done a certain way, of course, so that the dress shirt doesn't look out of place.

Everyday Casual

A lot of casual button up shirts are designed to be worn for an everyday, relaxed look. These shirts may also be worn on the job, outside of formal business settings, depending on what your work consists of. They are also a popular choice for wearing outdoors on temperate days.

smart business casual white shirt and pants

Everyday casual shirts are made from breathable fabrics and tend to have very relaxed collars. They come in a wider and bolder range of colors and patterns than dress shirts do, so you can personalize your style and be comfortable at the same time. Plaid shirts are a favorite style currently worn by many people on a regular basis.

Sporty

Some situations call for a collared shirt that is more like a tee shirt. If a shirt has short sleeves, it is automatically considered casual wear, but you might need to look dressed up even though your arms are bare. The polo shirt is the popular choice to wear at country clubs and for sports like tennis and golf.

man wearing collared green polo shirt and khaki pants

This shirt is short sleeved, but still has a collar. Polo shirts do not button all the way down, but a few buttons running from the chest up to the collar elude to the style of a dress shirt. Knitted material gives polo shirts a comfortable feel for moving and sweating in.

The Right Fit

man having selfie wearing white dress shirt with tie and pants

The fit of any shirt, be it a dress shirt or a casual shirt, is key to the look that you are going for. You now have a basic understanding of the different types of shirts and when to wear them, but if you walked into a department store right now you might get confused. Sometimes it can be hard to tell a nice casual shirt apart from a plain dress shirt, but the fit of the shirt can offer you quick clues.

In this video, it shows both shirts to highlight the differences between them. This will enable you to tell the difference and pick the right shirt for the style you are going for.

Length

It goes without saying that a formal dress shirt will always be tucked in, and nine times out of ten your standard dress shirt will be tucked in, too. The length of a shirt can quickly tell you if it is made to be worn tucked or untucked. Dress shirts will typically be longer than casual shirts. This is so that when you tuck them in they will stay tucked in, even if you are moving around a lot, such as when dancing at a wedding reception.

man wearing striped dress shirt on a side view angle

Casual shirts are often worn untucked, and the bottom hem will be cut shorter and tailored for this purpose. You can generally use the back pockets of your pants to gauge whether a shirt should be tucked in or not. If the shirt tail hits below your pockets, it should not be worn untucked. Of course, you don't want to show any midriff skin, either. That's a little too causal! To be safe, try to find casual shirts with tails that don't hit any higher than the middle of the back pockets of your pants.

Frame

The frame of a shirt refers to the overall fit, or tailoring, of the shirt's torso against your body. While you might be able to get away with a little extra room in a casual shirt, the frame of a dress shirt and a casual shirt do not vary a great deal from one another. You will want enough room to be able to move around, but the shirt should be fitted enough to not look sloppy, in either case.

man trying to close dress shirt

When you are trying on shirts, stretch your arms through a range of motions to make sure that you can move comfortably, without very much constraint. Button the shirt all the way up to the top button, whether you will be wearing it that way or not, and make sure that there aren't any gaps in the spaces between the buttons. This means that your shirt is too tight, and other people will notice that it is.

man tucking in his dress shirt

The shirt should fit closely to the natural shape of your torso, without squeezing your body in any areas. If you have a rounder body shape, consider a traditional cut shirt, with straighter lines and a roomier fit. Modern cuts are often a good choice for men with slimmer builds, because they have a tapered cut, which is wider at the chest and slimmer towards the hips, to prevent an undesirable bloused look.

If you have trouble finding a good fit, you can always purchase a shirt with a bit of extra room and take it to a tailor to be fitted to your body perfectly. Remember that just because one brand of shirt has a fit that you like, it is common for different brands of shirts to fit very differently, even in the same size. Always try before you buy.

Sizing

Traditionally, a dress shirt will be sized according to neck and sleeve measurements. Some modern companies are moving to sizing using measurements that correlate with height and weight, for an even better fit. American brands will be measured in inches, while European brands will offer sizing in centimeters.

sizing chart for men's dress shirts 

When figuring out your neck measurement, leave room so you don't feel choked by your collar. Also account for the room needed for a tie, if you are planning to wear one. Your sleeves should come down all the way to the wrist, or slightly above it, without extending onto your palm. This might be the case for the sleeves of some casual shirts, however, so that you can roll the cuff up on itself, or over the sleeves of a sweater or a blazer.

measuring dress shirt sleeve length

Casual and sporty shirts usually come in standard small, medium, large, and extra large sizes, since the fit does not have to be as precise for casual, everyday situations. You may find some dress shirts in standard sizes, too. If you choose to buy one, you should be able to get a more desirable fit by taking the shirt to be professionally tailored.

Fabric Matters

dress shirt fabric

No matter how well your shirt fits, the color, print, and type of fabric that it is made out of will play one of the largest roles in determining if your button up shirt is right for dress or casual wear.

Materials

Dress shirts are typically made from high thread count textiles that are tightly woven from cotton and silk. Dress shirt fabric weaves can be textured or smooth, and some examples include oxford, twill, broadcloth, and pinpoint. These fabrics tend to lay more evenly, and they have a rich and sometimes shiny look to them. In general, fancier materials are reserved for dressier shirts.

fabric with tape measure on it

Casual shirts are often made from rougher materials, and can be knit or woven. Some of the common fabrics used to make casual shirts are flannel, linen, plain oxford, chambray, and denim. Casual shirts usually have better breathability. They are often a little more rugged in texture and lack the sheen of a dress shirt. With casual shirts you have a wider range of options to suit whatever climate you are in. For example, linen is a popular fabric choice for hot weather, and flannel is a classic cold weather material.

Colors

neutral colored shirts

The colors of dress shirts are muted, and are usually either solid neutrals, like black, white, and navy, or pastels, including green, yellow, pink and blue. An understated color is always a safe bet when selecting a dress shirt. Casual shirts can come in all of the colors that dress shirts do, but bright and bold colors are a dead give away that a shirt is meant purely for casual dress. If you have two shirts of the same color to choose from, look to the type of fabric for clues on which shirt is best for the occasion.

Patterns

The wildest of patterns, including geometric designs, plaids, checkers, and large floral prints should be restricted to casual shirts. Dress shirts tend to be solid, but if you have to wear them all the time for work, you might get bored of the plain look after awhile. Patterns can be acceptable for dress shirts, too, but they need to be in balance with the understated essence that dress shirts call for.

man wearing striped shirt

Striped dress shirts will have stripes that are no more than a half of a centimeter wide. The stripes on a dress shirt will always be vertical, and the colors will be light, so there isn't a stark contrast between the dress shirt's base color and the color of the stripes. Delicate floral prints and paisley prints on light colored dress shirts can also be viable options for subtly adding pattern into your dress wardrobe.

What to Pair With Your Shirt?

What you pair your dress or casual shirts with can play up or dress down your look to a small or large degree. You should always consider what pieces your overall outfit will consist of before selecting your shirt.

man thinking of what to wear

If you are pairing a dress shirt with jeans, this will obviously bring the formality of your shirt down to the casual level. Dressing up a casual shirt can involve adding layers, such as a sweater, blazer, or even a suit jacket.

You can play around with different looks once you get comfortable with the guidelines I've laid out in this article. Just remember not to wear your favorite lumberjack shirt to a black tie event!

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