Basic Shirts For The Marvin Man

Starched collar shirt, complimentary tie, polished shoes and today’s newspaper were the basic elements in my grandad’s formula for clout, well into his retirement. The man woke up early like anyone going to work, except his morning kisses good-bye didn’t involve rushing out of the gate to catch the train. He now walked in a dignified manner to the front porch, his new office, to sit in his favourite seat to read the latest current affairs daily.

Pulling a leaf out of my maternal grandfather’s book on swagger led to me spending time ensuring that my shirts, as basic as they were earlier in my career, were always crisp for the next day at work. I would often smile gingerly thinking of how my peers on the trading floor couldn’t care less about their appearance, yet marvelled at how neat I always looked. As long as they had their favourite chinos and sleeveless jacket, nobody bothered about the shirt underneath.

Some of those that chose to go to work without that horrid sleeveless jacket would, at times, have challenges in their shirt and trouser combinations. This may have been a function of grabbing a shirt off the rack without considering what the combination would look like.

As a minimum, men should consider starting off with these basic dress shirts when rebuilding their wardrobes, as these offer different options when combined with either plain trousers or a suit.

  1. The basic woven white dress shirt:

This should be a staple garment in every man’s wardrobe. Appropriate with most trousers or suits, except brown (stick to either a baby blue or peach-coloured shirt for that). Although a medium spread collar is the most basic, you can have a variety of these types of dress shirts with different collars that may include either; a cut-away, a club or even a pinned collar. These options will obviously vary based on the suitability for the shape of your face…but that’s a whole other topic.

The choice of cuffs will depend on the functionality of the shirt. While French cuffs are more formal, especially with a medium spread collar, a shirt with barrel cuffs can easily be worn for a night on the town. This is especially true with the club collar variant which looks just as good with or without a tie…depending on the occasion of course. The complimentary trousers will depend on the shirt choice. Formal trousers easily work with the medium spread collar with the French cuffs. On the other hand, jeans or even chinos could easily work with the club or cut-away collar. Since this is a plain shirt with very little detail, I’d suggest choosing one with a French placket for consistency. Choosing this type of placket means there’s no additional piece of fabric on the front of the shirt because it is sewn underneath. This will make the shirt look seamless which is what you ultimately want from an all-white plain-woven dress shirt. It should speak for itself.

  1. Fancy woven white dress shirt

As the name suggests, this variety of shirt is for more formal outfits which can be as simple as pairing it with your power suit or stepping it up with a tuxedo. I personally love these shirts almost as much as the plain woven type.

One can never have too many white shirts” … A lesson I took from a colleague that I’ve never seen in any other coloured shirt to work. Oddly, nobody ever questioned the fact that he looked the same every day. That may support the argument pertaining to the timelessness of the white shirt.  Given the formality of these shirts, it only makes sense to wear either double or French cuffs. Whether you prefer the rounded or square type is a matter of preference. While I personally enjoy wearing shirts with cufflinks, practicality tends to go out the window if you haven’t yet built up a plethora of dress shirt options. Never mind the additional expense associated with this, for novices. The solution herein lies in investing in barrel cuff dress shirts before moving onto the double or French cuff variety.

  1. Ivory shirt

Very similar to a white shirt, but the contrast becomes apparent when held next to each other in clear light. While the white shirt is best suited with darker colours like greens and greys, it looks atrocious when mixed with warmer colours such as brown. This is where the ivory shirt comes in. On its own, it holds similar properties to that of a white shirt and can be matched well with tweeds and a blue suit. As for cuffs, the choice is up to you. If you’re battling with this, then apply these simple rules. On more formal occasions, wear this shirt with double or French cuffs, but barrel cuffs work just as well when worn casually. It’s definitely the preferred shirt to pack when I go on holiday. It goes very well with my Irish linen summer suits in different colours.

  1. Light blue dress shirt

Ideally, you should invest in different hues of light blue, from the lighter variety to darker tones. You could start with plain weaves and perhaps add some options which may include herringbone or even twill weave because they’re both classics. As with all other dress shirts, try to get a medium weighted fabric as it won’t be too heavy in warmer months or too light in colder times relative to the alternative weights. However, if you live in areas with constant temperatures, then it only makes sense to veer to fabric weights suitable to those areas. Similar to the white shirt, the light blue shirt gives you variety, especially with your complimentary suit and chino options. As with all other dress shirts, please do us all a favour and remember to skip the shirt pocket. It has never had a reasonable function except in primary school for keeping your pens.

  1. Striped dress shirt

One of the most versatile kind of shirts to keep in your wardrobe. While stripe width is completely up to you, a safe bet is the mid-width variety as a start. The point is to look timeless, not trendy…those never last. This kind of shirt fits perfectly with a navy suit and a contrasting tie as the colours complement each other. Regarding the tie; if you’re looking for more than just a solid tie, then Madden and Macclesfield neat micro pattern ties will also do the trick.  If you’re brave enough, you could try your hand, wearing it with a windowpane suit if the lines on the suit aren’t too jarring. I would advise against wearing it with a pinstripe suit though…you’ll only end up looking like a walking barcode. As before, double or French cuffs with a medium spread collar work with the formal look. For casual Fridays, this shirt works well worn on an open collar, with a navy double-breasted jacket with gold buttons, white slacks and navy Belgian loafers. For a Saturday stroll, you could try wearing this shirt with tapered leg jeans, sneakers and even a cap. On a beach holiday, the wider stripe could add more variety to your collection and works well if you wear it with loose fitting white linen trousers, sandals and a wide brim panama straw hat.

  1. Button-down collar

A Sunday classic. My favourite shirt for church, only because it meant I could get away with not wearing a tie. I recommend collecting this kind of shirt in various solid colours. The Oxford cloth, in particular, wears really well and is a wardrobe mainstay. It can easily be paired with chinos and white slacks if you’re leaning more towards the preppy look. Tying a tennis jersey around the neck is one of my favourite accessories to add to this.

  1. Denim shirt

I strongly believe you should have two options here. Firstly, a formal denim shirt looks absolutely fabulous in a winter suit. Preferably in the original denim tone with a cutaway collar, contrasting tie and a beige Gingham three-piece or double-breasted suit. For casual Friday when you’re still seeing clients, you could try this shirt with a tweed jacket, tie, waistcoat, jeans and brogues. For a more relaxed look, the mandarin collar option in stone wash works perfectly. No need for a tie on this occasion, plus it looks great with contrasting tone jeans and sneakers. As an overlay, the bomber jacket is a definite winner in any basic colour.


  1. The Checked shirt

A timeless casual classic. It’s best you stick a button-down collar here, no need for a tie. Whether you choose the red and white or the blue and white combination is your choice. It never goes out of style and can be mixed and matched with many items in a man’s wardrobe. Throwing a blazer or even a sports jacket on top completes the look. Works perfectly with either chinos or slim fitting jeans.

Writer: Ndzutha Mngqibisa