The Oxford shirt: the single most important item in a man’s wardrobe

It’s unlikely you won a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford. There are only 32 American students chosen per year to pursue their education at England’s (and perhaps the world’s) most prestigious university. And let’s face it: you’re not that smart.

You can, however, dress smartly. And the easiest way to do that is to wear the classic piece of men’s apparel known as the Oxford shirt. You can then also prove to people that you’re smarter than they thought you were by explaining that the Oxford shirt did not originate at Oxford, despite what the popular mythology surrounding the shirt says.

oxford shirt with suit
Image by He Spoke Style

The Oxford shirt is named after Oxford cloth, a heavier-than-average cotton cloth created in Scotland in the 19th century. The merchants behind the cloth dubbed it “Oxford” in hope that it might capture a bit of the cachet of the University of Oxford. The marketing ploy worked. The Oxford shirt has been synonymous with affluence, achievement and an air of sophistication for decades.

In its earliest iterations, the Oxford shirt was worn with a suit jacket and tie. In recent decades, it became unfashionable to wear ties with Oxfords. Yet this seems to be changing once more. It’s extremely unlikely anyone would look askance at a guy wearing a tie with an Oxford shirt (However, a knit tie will look best. Dressier ties are for suits. And an Oxford is generally not the best choice with a suit.)

Today the Oxford is a staple of business casual attire . Perhaps that’s because nothing much has changed about the shirts for decades. Oxford cloth still has the same heavy and rough weave of old. Thus Oxford shirts tend to be more durable than other shirts. As importantly, the stiffness of the cloth means that Oxfords tend to hold their shape better than other shirts, looking crisp even after hours of wear. That makes them perfect for office work.

Oxford shirts vs. dress shirts

collar difference
Shirts Collar Differences: Image by Alan Flusser Custom

It’s worth noting that lots of guys wear shirts that they call Oxfords that aren’t actually Oxfords. Shirts that aren’t made with Oxford cloth but are made with some other material – often fancier and more elegant, but sometimes just an inexpensive blend – are best described as “dress shirts.”

Another difference between Oxfords and dress shirts is the collar. Dress shirts come with a wide variety of collars. Spread collars, for example, are particularly popular in this era for business attire. Oxfords don’t have spread collars.

Rather an Oxford shirt will generally have a button-down collar, which is exactly what it sounds like. There are buttons that hold the collar in place when fastened. (Pro tip: dress shirts that button down will often have a tiny slot on the underside of the collar tip for collar stays. That’s why spending a few bucks on some brass collar stays is a good investment..) 

oxford shirts fit
Image by The Art of Manliness

Choosing the right fit for an Oxford shirt

The famed stiffness of Oxford cloth dictates how an Oxford shirt should fit.

An Oxford should not be too tight or too loose. If the shirt hugs the body excessively, it will be uncomfortable. But if the shirt is too loose, it will tend to hold its own shape, rather than yours, making you look boxy.

The sleeves of an Oxford should end where your wrists meet your forearm. A sleeve that is much longer or shorter than that looks silly.

Even if you plan never to wear a tie, make sure the collar of your Oxford is the correct size when buttoned. That will ensure your shirt looks clean and sophisticated even when unbuttoned, rather than sloppy or ill-fitting. The collar of an Oxford shirt should rest against the back of your neck. And if you button the top button of the shirt, you should be able to fit two fingers between the collar and your neck: no more and no fewer.

When and where to wear an Oxford shirt

In today’s world, the Oxford is the perfect go-to shirt for almost any occasion in a man’s life. Heading to the office? Wear an Oxford with a pair of chinos . Meeting someone for coffee or a casual dinner? Wear an Oxford with some dark jeans.

The versatility of an Oxford requires that every guy should have one.

“An Oxford shirt is great to have. I think it’s reasonable for guys to have at least a couple in solid colors,” says Scott Shapiro, a stylist with Taelor. “It’s just really classic. And depending on the brand, it’s usually cut in a kind of streamlined look that works for most guys.”

Joanna Medieros, another Taelor stylist, agrees.

“An Oxford is like a little black dress for women. You want to have two or three of those in your closet,” she says. “You can dress them up with a tie. You can dress them down with jeans.”

Joanna suggests having a few Oxfords in the classic shades of blue and white and then, if a guy doesn’t want to wear a tie, he can still add a pop of color with a pocket square.

An Oxford shirt is also particularly well-suited for layering. The rougher texture of Oxford cloth means an Oxford shirt just looks better with a sweater than do most dress shirts. 

oxford shirt styling
Image by Taylor Stitch

Care and Maintenance of Oxford shirts

An Oxford shirt will last a long time if you care for it appropriately. If you’re not particularly skilled with laundry and/or an iron, you’ll want to send your shirts out to be cleaned. (Note: your dry cleaning professional will NOT dry clean your shirt. They will wash it and iron it, as they should.) Another way to avoid doing laundry and ironing your Oxfords is to rent your apparel from Taelor .

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