The Anatomy of a Formal Shirt

Alexander Kabbaz is a Alexander Kabbaz is a custom shirt maker, clothier, and haberdasher. his article originally appeared on and has been adapted and edited for the Styleforum Journal.

Over the past 40 years of dressing ladies and gentlemen, we’ve found the majority of formal events take place in the Spring, with April/May/June being the height of the season. Of course, weddings will continue to happen throughout the year, and you may be called upon to wear formal clothing well before the weather cools off. In this article, I’ll cover the anatomy of a formal shirt, paying special attention to summer variations in both garments and style.

Number One for Men: formal dressing has Rules with a capital R!

Number Two for Men: dressing has Rules … the top one on my list being Comfort with a capital C. So how do we accomplish Rule Two without making Emily Post turn over in her grave,all the while observing the other Capital C – Caveat?

This line from old friend and renowned menswear scribe G. Bruce Boyer sheds some light on the answer: “…find freedom within the rules. Anyone can be different because it’s easy to be outrageous. The trick is to be just that bit different.”

When you’re attending a formal occasion, remember this: just about the only garments that will be noticed are your shirt, tie, and cummerbund if you wear one. Why? Everything else will be basic black or midnight blue and will be the same as every other monkey suit in the room. So pay attention to what can be different: your shirt. Unless you’re part of a style-dictated wedding party, good taste virtually mandates that the body of your shirt be white. Yes, you’ll see pink ones and blue ones and teal ones and grey ones with pink pique, blue ruffles or grey pleats. However, if you’re past the age when your high school prom was the ultimate concern on your list, leave the colored shirts to the 12th Graders. Start with a white shirt body. What should the shirt body be made of? Here is where the most important of seasonal differences arise.

anatomy formal shirt characteristics construction

The Fabric

You have two basic choices: standard poplin/broadcloth or lightweight, breathable voile. Does it matter? Only in terms of the top-on-my-list rule 2: comfort.

Face it: most tuxedos, tails, and the like are hot. They’re black. They’re generally made from a substantial 10-12 oz wool. And you usually don’t take them off and show the whole shirt … at least until everyone’s had sufficient liquid refreshment so as not to notice the fabric of your shirt body. Were it my choice and were I not in the Yukon, I’d have two shirts:  one voile body for Spring/Summer and one broadcloth for Fall/Winter. Can’t go for two? Get the voile. Even in winter, the jacket will offer sufficient warmth no matter what the shirt fabric. (Click here for more fabric information.)

The Bosom

We have a box here just above my cutting table labeled “Unique Bosoms.” Most folks coming into our studio give me that ‘you’re a dirty old man’ look and assume it’s my porn collection. Actually, the shirt maker’s term for the decorative front of a formal shirt is “bosom.” Now that what there was of my dignity is restored, let’s discuss bosoms without gawk or giggle.

Will you be wearing a cummerbund? A vest? Nothing but trousers? How much of your shirt will show determines how long the bosom needs to be. You’ll need to know how long the distance is from the bottom of your collar band down to whichever garment (vest or cummerbund or trousers) will cover the bottom of the decorative bosom of your shirt. Then, make the bosom 1″ to 1.5″ longer, ensuring no peek-a-boo ‘twixt bosom and the lower, unadorned shirt front. Why not have the bosom go all the way to the shirt bottom? Because the bosom is bulky and thicker than the plain shirt body. Aside from the discomfort of this heavy material down there, the additional bulk will do its best to push back up out of your trousers, creating unsightly wrinkles in the shirt front.

Here’s where formal shirts get to be fun – at least for me. So share my joy! Let’s start with the basics: do you want the front to be pleated, or would you prefer the more subtle pique look? One important note: if the shirt is to be worn with tails (i.e. with a morning coat, or a tail coat – properly termed a “swallowtail coat”), pique is the only acceptable and very, very, very much preferred front. Did I say Very Much?

There is also a Summer/Winter factor here. Pique, no matter which form thereof, is generally heavy. It will be covering most of the front of your torso so, again, if you can go for two shirts, pleats can be made of broadcloth or voile. Get one with a voile body and voile pleats for the warmer weather.


Come in at no fewer than dozens, if not hundreds, of different variations. At least they do at a good custom shirtmaker. The most standard is a very traditional 1/2″ pleat with 8-12 of them on each side of the front. There are 1/4″ pleats, 1/8″ pleats, even smaller ones we call “pin tucks.” There are pleats which vary in size called “variopintuck.” There are pleats designed with a complimentary set of smaller pleats to be used in the shirt’s center front.

pleats formal shirt constructionAnd yes … there are colored pleats. Reds, blues, black & white. There are white pleats with sparkly trim. There are pleats with metallic threads intertwined. There are white pleats with interspersed colored rows. Suffice it to say you should have a wide choice of pleats, and in addition to the traditional hand-made pleats, many weavers such as Switzerland’s Alumo offer stylized pre-made bosoms.

Having had the privilege for decades of creating Leonard Bernstein’s “formal” (he called them “conducting”) shirts, our repertoire of pleats and our variety of piques grew to be rather enormous. We actually have boxes labeled ‘Unique Bosoms II”, “Unique Bosoms III” and more – but for the reasons outlined above I now store these in a couple of drawers.


The most basic, traditional, often-seen pique is called “birdseye.” Why, you may wonder. Because, son, the little itty-bitty pique thingies are shaped like birds eyes. Duh!

Is that it? Of course not! There are square piques. There are basket-weave piques. There are cord piques (picture narrow-wale corduroy). Actually, there are some really interesting piques for folks like us who look at them through magnifying glasses.

Don’t fret if your shirt maker has only the standard birdseye. Stand back 18″ and you’ll never know the difference. Reminder: wearing tails? Select a pique.

Shirt Body

When it comes to the seasonal appropriateness of your formal shirt body, there are other warm weather fabric alternatives to consider. I have at times made a voile shirt body, the bosom of which was nothing more than another layer of voile cut in the shape of a round-bottom bosom and stitched onto the shirt front with two parallel rows of stitches. Very plain and tasteful, the additional outline layer of voile adds little in terms of warmth and breathes beautifully. Although voile cannot be used to imitate pique for a black tie shirt, there are a number of looser square basketweaves available which can. These don’t have the extremely tight and thick, hot construction of birdseye pique and will breath more than their heavier counterpart. In this case, one could even consider using a royal oxford. Its highly lustrous little “diamonds” would well-imitate the desired look and, again, will breath much better than the traditional birdseye. 

Front Closure

While we’re still on the shirt front, let’s deal with the studs/button issue. You have three basic choices: studs, buttons, or concealed closure (also called “fly-front”).

front formal shirt constructionstuds formal shirtThe most acceptable option is studs. Let’s return to that measurement you took from your collar band to the bottom of the bosom. Was it 15″ or less? 3 studs will suffice. More than 15″? Spring for the additional, fourth stud. If you don’t, you’ll have too much space between the last stud and the bottom of the bosom. The shirt front will gap open. Studs require advance decision-making: your shirt maker must make holes in both the left and right fronts to accommodate the studs.

There is a “cheating” alternative: specify the shirt for studs, then ask your maker to provide a “button strip” with small black mother-of-pearl shank buttons. This is a narrow strip of fabric adorned with black shank buttons which imitate studs. The wearer can use it when choosing not to use his studs or when traveling to places where the value of jewelry is a concern.

The second alternative is to use buttons as on a regular shirt. Ugh – this ain’t a regular shirt.

The final choice is concealed buttons. Personally, I’ve never understood that one. You’ve got these wonderful nature-made iridescent mother-of-pearl buttons – the absolute top of the button food-chain – and you’re gonna hide them? Whatever for?


Of course a formal shirt has French cuffs. Right? Wrong!Although French cuffs are sort of (severe nose curl here) acceptable on a shirt for wearing with a tux, they are absolutely, definitely not acceptable for a shirt meant to be worn with tails.

french cuffs formal shirt appropriateInstead, opt for single link cuffs. They have only two holes. They do not fold over. They are the first cuff ever used on a shirt (back in the day, they were tied closed with a string through the two holes). They are the most formal cuff. They are the most comfortable cuff.

Let’s do some name dropping here: Leonard Bernstein wore only them. Tom Wolfe wore only them.

Personally, I prefer them on all but my casual shirts if for nothing more than their understated elegant appearance and unparalleled pure comfort. Have I sold you yet?

The Collar

Let the arguments begin!

Which is the proper collar to wear with a tux? With tails? In the morning? Evening? For the type of occasion?

batwing wing collar formal shirt typeThe wing (properly called batwing) collar is the correct one to wear with a tailcoat. You’d look rather ignorant in a tailcoat with a turndown collar. However, a turndown collar can be worn with a tuxedo. Furthermore, a properly made batwing collar can be as beautiful and distinctive as it is tasteful and flattering.

Back to Rule Two: Comfort. If you’re uncomfortable in a wing collar, then have your (not for tails) formal shirt made with a turndown collar.

Planning to use the same shirt for both tux and tails? Have the shirt made with two, detachable collars. They’re a bit of a pain-in-the-ass to work with, but that way you can have one shirt fill two purposes. You’ll have no choice but to select the pique (or previously discussed pique alternative) front if you are going to use the same shirt for tux and tails.

There are two final but important things to remember: one, the bow-tie needs a bit of tie space to sit properly with a turndown collar, so make it a semi-spread.  Two… and the most often answered question: Tuck the “wings” of a batwing collar behind the bow tie. The only time to leave the wings up above the tie is never. 

The Basics Make You Proper

This is a word used more often when discussing men’s formal dress than when discussing anything else in the universe of menswear. Were I to show three men the same wing collar, I can virtually guarantee that one would consider it perfect; the second would blanche at the “too large wings;” the third would wonder why I had made the wings so small. And the first guy who considered it perfect? That’s on a good day!

In short, observe the basics of formalwear: Tuxedo. Appropriate shoes. Cufflinks. A shirt made for the occasion. Beyond that? Be yourself. Be comfortable in your clothes. And once you’ve checked yourself out in the mirror, forget what you’re wearing and enjoy the party!

Copyright © 2017 Alexander Kabbaz. All rights reserved.