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Looking Like a Lawyer, Part 2b: Men’s Shirts

June 18, 2012

This is the third installment in a series on cultivating a lawyerly image. The first discussed sartorial fundamentals for female lawyers and the second dealt with men’s suits. Guest contributor Leo M. Mulvihill is a partner at Mulvihill & Rushie–The Fishtown Lawyers. He has written widely on style for Art of Manliness. This is his debut on the PhiLAWdelphia blog.

After following the sage advice in Looking Like a Lawyer, Part 2a, now you have a suit that fits you well, and makes you look and feel like a million bucks. But unless you want to go to court looking like a Chippendale’s model, you’ll need to have a nice arsenal of shirts to wear with your suits. If you’re in the type of office that requires you to be in a shirt and tie every day, you’ll probably want to have at least 10 shirts to rotate so that you’re not doing laundry twice a week — or worse, wearing dirty shirts to work. Below, I’ll discuss some hints to make dressing in the morning as easy as possible for you, while ensuring you always look put together. My goal throughout this article to keep it simple and classic – almost to the point where you could reach into your closet, without looking, and end up with a suitable outfit for court.

Building Your Professional Shirt Wardrobe.
I’m going to take all of us back to our bar exam studies. Remember all those mnemonics your lecturers tried to make you remember? Well, neither do I.

But when shopping for shirts, we can distill everything down pretty simply to the 5Cs of what you should consider – – 1) Color; 2) Cut; 3) Cloth; 4) Collar; and 5) Cuffs.

So let’s have at it.


Step into any menswear store and you’ll likely see more colors than a Crayola crayon big-box. Your first step is to ignore most of them. If you’re starting out with a professional wardrobe, the easiest mistake to make is to buy fashion colors – like  pink, or brown – or intricately striped shirts. Not only are these colors unprofessional, they make even the simplest suit and tie ensembles difficult to pull off. Court is not a nightclub.

So as I see it, you want to focus on two colors: white and blue. Let’s talk about each.

Solid white.
Take a look at any show that depicts professionals from 50 years ago. Heck, watch an episode of Mad Men. They are all wearing white shirts — the term “white-collar” is not a coincidence. White is the most professional and least offensive color shirt you can buy. White is the easiest color to complement with a professional ensemble. You’ll won’t have to worry if your suit or tie look bad with a white shirt. It matches everything, and makes dressing for work a simple matter. Even the most conservative law firms and judges will never give you guff for wearing white. Not to mention everyone looks good in a white shirt. You will want to invest in a few emergency Tide pens for those after-a-messy-lunch meetings.

Solid blue.
The next formal color is solid blue. Blue was historically considered to be less formal than white (hence the terms “white collar” and “blue collar” jobs). These days, though, no one will bat an eye when you walk into court with a blue shirt. What’s nice thing about blue is it often complements the skin tone of its wearer. While white may wash out some complexions, blues can brighten the complexion, and may make the wearer look more alive and awake.
Moreover, there’s really only one shade of white, while there are countless shades of blue –  you will invariably find a shade which suits you. Lighter blues tend to look the most flattering on most complexions, and are the easiest to pair with suits and ties.

Blue and white patterns.
Solid shirts are nice foundation in your wardrobe, though perhaps dull to some. If you feel like spicing up your shirt wardrobe, while maintaining your classic and professional appearance,  consider throwing in a few simple patterns that mix blue and white.

Not only are blue-and-white are appealing when paired, no one will bat an eye if you wear a blue and white patterned shirt to work. Consider either Bengal stripes, or University stripes. You may want to purchase a Prince of Wales check or two as well. A field of blue and white with a single colored over check will give your ensemble a little more visual interest and provides additional options when trying to find a complementary tie or pocket square to wear with your shirt.

Finally, unless you’re Gordon Gekko, or you’ve already made partner, avoid contrast collars.

With these three building blocks–white, blue, and patterned blue and white–you’ll have a foundation of professional shirt wardrobe.

The next thing to consider when purchasing a new shirt is its cut, and what kind of cut suits your body type. Different manufacturers offer various cuts of shirt for the myriad body types out there.

Unfortunately, with the advent of mass shirt manufacturing, many shirt makers took a one-size-fits-all approach, and cut their shirts with all the finesse and style of a potato sack. If you have shirts that resemble a muumuu, because they’re simply cut too full in the torso for your body, try taking them to your local tailor. Ask them to put “darts” in the back of your shirt. These darts tighten the shirts around your torso, and help you to avoid a shirt untucking itself and sloppily billowing out of your pants.

If you’re looking to purchase new shirts, many companies now offer “slim” or “athletic” cut shirts. These shirts are generally cut somewhat closer to the torso, which gives you a sharper appearance, and helps keep the shirt tucked in throughout the day. For those men who are very slight, some companies even offer “extra slim fit” shirts, though these are often may be a little too fashion-forward for the professional office. Try them on, and use your best discretion.

If you already have a full arsenal of shirts, some of which are too big around the body, but you don’t care to take them to a tailor, you should try a Z–tuck, which is explained here. This talk creates the appearance a slimmer fitting shirt and helps keep your shirt tucked in.


Alright, so now you found the perfect colored shirt in a cut that suits you well.

Before you pull the trigger and buy that shirt, check the tag.  You want to stick to that are 100% cotton. Cotton is a natural fiber that allows your skin to breathe, is fairly resilient, and is easy to press with an iron.  Unfortunately, many shirt manufacturers these days use cloth blended with artificial fibers, such as polyester.  While polyester blend shirts tend not to wrinkle as easily as 100% cotton shirts, they age very ungracefully, and have a terrible tendency to pill around the collar, under your arms, and anywhere else will where there might be friction. Moreover, polyester fibers tend to trap heat, sweat, and body odor more readily than an easy-breathing cotton shirt. Running into a courtroom a sweaty, smelly mess is probably the the last thing you’ll want!

Most 100% cotton shirts will need to be ironed after every wash. Though if you’re not a fan of the iron, or simply don’t have the time, you may wish to look into non-iron shirts. Most of these are cotton that has been treated with a special finish – so when you remove them from the wash you can simply hang them and they’re ready to go. They can be a real life-saver on days when you find yourself running a few minutes late.

And when it comes to a cloth’s appearance – stick with a simple broadcloth or oxford material. Avoid shirts that have sateen stripes or a raised-pattern woven into the cloth. These shirts may be appropriate for a club or social events, but they tend to be a bit flashy for professional work. Moreover, they tend not to age well – the stripes often fade, and the patterns fray quickly.

Finally, if you take your shirts to the cleaner, ask for sizing, rather than starch. Starch is great for that a crisp appearance, but it degrades and ages the fabric.


Thought it may seem that all collared shirts are the same, upon closer review, you’ll notice that there are as many different collar variants as there are colors of shirts. For our purposes, we’ll classify them into three broad categories: points; spreads; and button downs.

Points are those collars that have a relatively narrow spread and long points – for an example, see Robert Deniro’s character in Casino.
While points may be the most common type of collar found on shirts, you’ll find they suit the fewest people. The long points often look awkward and lay strangely when worn with a tie. Thought if you have a fuller cheeks and a round jawline, you may find that the points frame you well and elongate your face.

Spread collars have been gaining in popularity over the last several years, perhaps due to more “fashion” brands manufacturing shirts with these collars. A spread collar is that which appears more open than a point collar. Generally a spread collar’s points lay at around 90 degree angle or greater. Spread collars tend to suit the largest number of people – whether you have a round or narrow face, you really can’t go wrong with a normal spread.

The wider the spread, the more “fashionable” the collar, so  if you work in a more conservative office, you may wish to avoid extreme cutaways – those where the points are almost 180 degrees from one another.

Button Down.
Arguably the least formal of the three, the button-down collar was introduced to America by Brooks Brothers in the early 20th century and has been a staple of American business wear ever since. The style is so-named because the collar’s points button down to the shirt, creating an elegant arched appearance when worn with a tie.

Despite its relative informality, you’ll rarely look out of place in an American court or office while wearing a button down collar. Brooks Brothers’ OCBD (oxford-cloth button down) is the premier example of this style of shirt, and they’re still made in the USA.

How should a collar fit?
Look around and you’ll see many men who wear their shirts oversized in the collar. Whether this is due to an improper understanding of how a shirt should fit, or to personal comfort, it looks sloppy.

In order to ensure that your collar fits, you may wish to have store staff measure your neck. Better quality men’s shirts are sized in half-inch increments. A shirt that fits will allow you to comfortably fit two fingers in between your neck and your collar when the top collar button is fastened

What about collar stays?
A good quality men’s shirt will have removable collar stays made of plastic or metal. These can be helpful in keeping a shape to your collar, especially if you’re not a fan of ironing. Be careful to remove these before you launder your shirts. And the adage “you get what you pay for” applies here as well – be wary of lower-quality metal shirt stays, as they have a tendency to cause shirt collars to fray.
I prefer to wear my shirts with no stays to let my collar lie naturally, though your mileage may vary.


The last thing to consider when purchasing a shirt is its cuffs. As with collars, there are many styles of cuffs, but we can break these down into two styles: turnback/french and button

Turnback (or French) cuffs are the more formal and elegant of the styles. Generally fastened with metal links or silk knots, these cuffs make a statement. While they’re elegant, they may not be the best option for a younger attorney to wear to court. Your superiors or jurors may see them as too flashy, or as drawing unwanted attention. Not to mention, if you’re wearing metal links, you may run into problems at the courthouse metal detector. We’ll talk more about cufflinks in a future post.

For those reasons, I generally prefer button cuffs. They’re an office staple and the less formal of the two styles. They’re quick and easy, and require no more thought than simply fastening the buttons. For younger attorneys, they are a safe bet, and a must-wear for firm interviews.

While we’re at it, let’s take some time to talk about sleeve length too. A good quality work shirt will generally have two measurements on the tag. The first number represents the collar size (usually between 14 – 18.5). The second represents the sleeve length (generally between 31 and 34). That second number is a measurement from the middle of the base of your neck down to your wrist. A sleeve of proper length will just barely rest on the base of your thumb when you hands on at your side. Any longer, and you’ll look sloppy and your sleeves will poke out much longer than your coat length. Any shorter, and you don’t get that nice ¼” of linen showing at the bottom of your coat cuffs. If you’re not sure what length sleeve you should wear, ask a customer service representative at your local men’s clothier to measure you.

Well, now you have it. The next time you’re out shopping for shirts, remember the the 5Cs — Cut, Color, Cloth, Collar, Cuffs — and you’ll be on the path to looking sharp without having to think much about it in the morning.

Stay tuned for our next installment, where we’ll tell you more than you ever wanted to know about ties.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2012 10:08 pm

    The variation of cuffs and colors on men’s shirts is so important! It’s something that you notice when it’s not right… Also, any mention to the wardrobe in Casino is a A+ blog in my book!

  2. June 20, 2012 6:39 pm

    That is a lot of writing on the subject. I never really thought about the subject in length like that. So many styles of collars and cuffs. Amazing!

  3. July 12, 2012 1:45 pm

    Good input

  4. July 16, 2012 6:11 am

    These are all good tips for choosing professional clothes. Non-iron clothes is really a good choice because it helps one save time as well as energy.

  5. lavenderislegit permalink
    May 20, 2013 8:38 pm

    Lots of young lawyers look good in pink, lavender and purple shirts without appearing flashy or fashion forward, as long as the rest of the outfit is conservative and the tie plays into the shirt. Eliminating all but blue and white shirts from a professional wardrobe is a bit much.

  6. jlharrisesq permalink
    May 22, 2013 1:45 am

    Lavenderislegit: Leo (the author) favors a fairly traditional look for lawyers, which is a valid stance given how conservative the profession is on so many fronts, including style. However, judicious departures from that playbook can work well once you know what kind of wiggle room you have with your employer, peers, judges, and others. I, for my part, often wear (very) pale solids as well as subtle patterns.


  1. Check out my PhiLAWdelphia guest post on professional menswear. « Philly Law Blog
  2. Looking like a Lawyer, Part 2c: Men’s Accessories. « PhiLAWdelphia
  3. Simple Interview Dress for Men
  4. Business Casual is Not That Hard
  5. A Treatise on Ties
  6. A Treatise on Ties (Now with Pictures!)
  7. Men's Business Casual is Not That Hard
  8. A Treatise on Ties (Now with Pictures!) –
  9. Simple Interview Dress for Men

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