Sunday, August 27, 2006

For dress shirts, the key is in the touch

By James Whitters, Boston Globe Correspondent

BOSTON - When Paul Wade shops for a dress shirt, he doesn't look at labels or price tags. He no longer needs to.

After nearly three decades as a wardrobe consultant at luxury clothing store Louis Boston , where he's surrounded daily by some of the finest men's garments on Newbury Street, Wade has developed a superior gauge of quality: His fingertips.

``Feel that?" he says, gently rubbing the collar of a $300 blue shirt from Italian designer Truzzi .

``It feels silky. You can tell immediately that this cloth is something that you would want next to your skin."

The men's dress shirt is being revitalized. Still a staple with suits and ties in the workplace, colorful, slimmer-cut shirts are now making statements all by themselves on the weekends.

Worn fashionably untucked with jeans, sneakers, and maybe a sport coat, tailored shirts have become the centerpiece of the urban hipster's modern look.

US consumers spent $2.4 billion on men's dress shirts between June 2005 and July 2006, an increase of 8.5 percent from the same period the year before, according to NPD Group , a Port Washington, N.Y., market research firm.

With shirts from premium domestic labels now retailing for as much as $225 and garments from European designers selling for between $275 and $1,000 for a one-off, custom-made silk shirt from Italy, Wade says its important to know exactly what you're buying.

He suggests consumers examine three basic details: Material, stitching, and the shirt's shape or cut.

``Every extra step that goes into making a shirt raises the price," Wade says. ``A well-made shirt, sewn by a tailor, usually takes an hour or more to make. A factory-produced shirt takes 10 minutes. You're paying for that extra time and quality."

Dress shirts are made from a variety of materials, from stretchy synthetic fabrics to ultra-fine cottons.

Wade says a quick touch can tell you all you need to know about a shirt's construction.

``Your fingers and hand can tell you a lot about the quality," he says. ``It should feel fairly silky and fine. Certainly not rough. You should be able to feel the quality of the material."

Stitching is equally important, says Wade. A dress shirt's stitches should be uniform in size and spaced close together. Sixteen stitches or more per inch is considered excellent.

High-end and custom shirts may include elements of hand stitching, or a technique called single-needle tailoring, which increases a shirt's durability and adds to its fit.

``Look to see that all the stitches are regular and fine," Wade says. ``The finer stitching means it won't buckle when you wash it or pucker at the seems."

A shirt's shape is also critical, says Wade. Modern dress shirts, designed to be worn with slim-cut suits, dress pants, and also casually untucked with jeans, should feature clean lines and fit on the snug side.

``Shirts, in general, should now fit trimmer through the body and be shorter in length," Wade says.

``Guys want to wear really nice shirts casually, but they have to remember that if you want to wear a dress shirt with today's trim-cut pants and jeans, it can't be boxy and long. The shirt has to follow the shape of the rest of the clothing."

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