Wondering how a button up shirt should fit? Here’s everything you need to know.
The button up shirt is one of the most important pieces in any man’s wardrobe.
But, just like with any other piece of clothing, if your shirts don’t fit properly, they’re not going to do you any favors.
You want to make sure your clothes are working for you, not against you.
To that end, this guide will teach you exactly how a button down should fit.
Before we talk about fit, we need to get clear on two things…
Button Down vs. Button Up
Shirts that fasten in the middle – you know, with buttons – are called button up shirts.
The term “button down” technically refers to the type of collar that buttons down onto your shirt.
These days, “button down” is often used to describe a button up shirt, regardless of whether or not it has a button down collar.
For the sake of accuracy, I usually use the term “button up” to describe the shirt style and the term “button down” to describe the collar style.
In this article, I’ll use the terms interchangeably to appease the Google SEO gods. 😏
If you’re still confused, just remember:
Some, but not all, button up shirts have button down collars.
Got it? Good. Let’s move on to the second point of clarification…
Dress Shirts vs. Casual Button Ups
Button up shirts come in many different varieties and levels of formality.
In general, button ups fall into one of two categories: causal and dress.
The main difference between these two styles is the shirt length. Put simply, dress shirts are longer than casual button ups because they’re meant to be worn tucked into your pants.
Casual button ups are shorter and meant to be worn untucked (although many are cut to a “hybrid” length that can be tucked or untucked).
Also, dress shirts usually have a more drastically curved hem, while casual button ups have a gently curved or straight hem.
Of course, there are other differences. Dress shirts may have hidden plackets and French cuffs, while casual button ups may have button down collars and chest pockets.
But the biggest difference is the length, and you want to one of the biggest style mistakes men make: wearing dress shirts untucked.
How a Button Up Shirt Should Fit
Besides the length – dress shirts are longer – all button up shirts should fit the same way.
As always, I recommend going for a fitted-but-not-tight look. This way, you’ll look great no matter what happens to be trendy.
Here’s how a button up should fit on a guy:
Even if you never wear a tie, you should be able to button the top button of your shirt without any discomfort.
If you can’t fit a couple of fingers between your shirt collar and your neck, it’s probably too tight.
On the other hand, if there’s a large visible gap, it’s probably too loose (a common problem for guys with slim necks).
When in doubt, it’s better to buy a shirt with a collar that’s slightly too wide. A large collar can be altered for a closer fit, but a collar that’s too small can’t be fixed.
Unlike some knit tops that sometimes have raglan sleeves or drop shoulders, button up shirts all feature the same basic shirt structure:
The sleeves are attached to the body, creating arm holes and shoulder seams.
These shoulder seams should sit right on top of your actual shoulders.
If you feel your shoulder, you’ll notice a protruding bone at the end. This is called the acromion, and it marks the end of your shoulder.
If your shirt fits properly, the should seam will sit right on that bone. If it extends past your shoulder, the shirt is too big (at least in the shoulders).
If your shirt is too small, you’ll likely feel some restriction or discomfort when you move your arms out in front of you. So, when you try a shirt on, swing your arms a few times like you’re an athlete warming up.
If you feel any pulling across your upper back, the shoulders are too narrow.
While I’d love to give you an exact measurement (i.e., you should be able to pinch 2″ of excess fabric on either side of your chest), the truth is that this will vary depending on how fitted your shirts are.
Slim fit shirts will sit closer to your body, allowing you to pinch about 1″ of excess fabric on either side of your chest.
Regular fit shirts will be a bit roomier, and that’s totally fine (and more comfortable, if we’re being honest!).
What you want to avoid is any sort of pulling across your chest. If the second and third shirt button are being pulled away from your chest, creating a space between your pecs, the shirt is definitely too tight.
This is a common problem for guys who work out a lot, but most men will deal with the exact opposite issue: shirts that are too big in the chest.
If you can pinch more than 2″ of fabric on both sides of your chest at the same time, the shirt is bordering on too baggy.
Again, this depends on your build. Many guys will have a slight drop in circumference from their chest to their belly (e.g., 38″ chest and 32″ waist).
These men need a bit of taper through the torso of their shirts, or else they’ll look like they’re wearing hand-me-downs.
Other guys need more room around the midsection, and any taper will lead to those bottom buttons holding on for dear life.
I recommend following the same guidelines I laid out above in the Shirt Chest section, and of course, just look at yourself in the mirror and do a visual check.
When tucked in, does your shirt create a “muffin top” effect around the top of your pants? If so, it’s probably too big.
On the other hand, if your shirt won’t drape naturally around your belly and hips, it’s probably too tight.
When it comes to button up or dress shirt sleeves, you want to pay attention to both length and width. Let’s talk about width first.
This is another area where a middle-of-the-road approach works best. Sleeves that are too slim will restrict your movements, but sleeves that aren’t slim enough will create the pirate shirt effect.
I recommend buying “slim fit” shirts even if you’re not a particularly slim guy, unless you happen to have large biceps and forearms.
For shirt sleeve length, you want the end of your shirt cuff to stop somewhere around your wrist bone. It’s okay if it goes past this bone and sits on your wrist, and it’s okay if it stops just short of the wrist bone.
The mistake most guys make is wearing shirts with sleeves that are too long for their arms. Unless you’re really tall and have very long arms, you won’t have to worry about sleeves being too short.
If you’re wearing a suit jacket or sport coat over your shirt, try to make sure there’s about 1/8 to 1/4 inch of shirt cuff exposed beyond your jacket sleeve.
Shirt length depends on what type of button up you’re wearing. Dress shirts are designed to be worn tucked in, so they’re longer than casual button ups.
The longest part of a dress shirt’s “tail” should stop around the top of your thighs in the front and bottom of your butt in the back.
It’s better for a dress shirt to be a little bit too long than a little bit too short. If it’s too short, you might have a hard time keeping it tucked in all day, especially when you raise your hands above your head.
Casual button up shirts should be shorter in length, stopping somewhere around mid-fly in the front and mid-butt in the back.
While some shirts happen to be the perfect length for you to wear tucked in or untucked, this is rare. Most of your button ups will be casual or dressy and will not work both ways.
Common Fit Problems
Compared to, say, a t-shirt, the button up shirt is a complicated garment. Unless you have an off-the-rack (i.e., average) build, you’ll often run into one of more of these common fit problems when wearing button up shirts.
Sleeves Too Long
This is most common issue that short men experience with both dress shirts and casual button ups. Most off-the-rack sleeves are simply too long for shorter guys.
When your sleeves are too long, it produces a “kid playing dress up” effect and can totally ruin an otherwise solid outfit.
To fix this problem, you can:
- Get your shirts tailored
- Roll your sleeves up
- Wear a jacket or sweater
- Buy custom made shirts
- But shirt for shorter men
If you have this problem, check out our in-depth guide for dealing with sleeves that are too long.
Sleeves Too Baggy
Many standard or “regular” fit shirts are designed to fit the average American male, who is a little over 5’9″ and almost 200 lbs (according to the CDC).
Technically, this is considered overweight, but it would be a dumb marketing move to call sell “husky” fit shirts, so brands just use words like “classic”, “regular”, “standard” and “traditional”.
Even slim fit shirts have expanded over the years to keep up with the average male customer (notice how many “athletic fit” pants there are these days?).
All of this to say, many off the rack button up shirts have wide, billowy sleeves that won’t look good on slimmer-than-average men.
For this reason, I definitely recommend buying “slim fit” shirts. You can also have your sleeves taken in at the tailor. It’s a surprisingly simple alteration that doesn’t cost very much at all.
If sleeve width is always an issue, I recommend buying custom shirts.
Shirt Too Long
This is really only an issue for casual button up shirts, and dress shirts are worn tucked in, which hides any excess length.
If the longest part of a your casual button up goes past the bottom of your fly, it’s too long.
This makes the shirt look too big for you and kind of makes you look shorter than you really are. It also lowers your perceived waistline and generally throws off your proportions.
Can Button up Shirts Be Shortened?
Yes, you can have your shirts shortened by an experienced tailor, but it’s not always a straightforward alteration.
If you shirt has side gussets, for example, this complicates things. Also, shortening a shirt by more than 1-2″ can lead to the bottom button being too close to the hem line, which looks odd.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t do this – it’s usually money well spent – just proceed with caution.
For more info, check out our guide to button up shirt alterations.
Details Are Off
Similar to sleeve length, this issue usually only affects shorter, smaller gents. If you’ve ever tried on a shirt where the chest pocket is way down on your ribs, you’re familiar with this problem.
Many brands don’t scale the details of a shirt — pocket size and placement, cuff length, collar point length, placket width — for smaller and larger sizes.
This can lead to small details looking a bit off on especially large or small guys.
One solution is to avoid these details altogether, opting for shirts without chest pockets, for example.
Another solution is to buy made-to-measure shirts that allow for customization of every little detail. For example, when I buy a custom shirt, I opt for a shorter collar and clean chest (no pocket).
Where to Buy Button Up Shirts That Fit
This really depends on your individual build. As a shorter, slimmer guy, I’ve found that most ready-to-wear shirts don’t fit me well at all.
So, over the years, I’ve gravitated toward brands that sell custom made shirts and brands that have proprietary sizing systems (i.e., brands that offer shorter lengths).
Here are some TMM-approved shirt makers:
Custom Shirt Brands
Shorter Guy Brands
Better Sizing (i.e., short/tall options)
If you’ve been frustrated with finding button downs that fit properly, I think you should consider any of the above options.
Sure, it might take some extra time or money to find something that works for you, but considering the button up shirt is such a versatile wardrobe staple, I think it’s worth the effort.
Questions? Comments? Leave them below!