Different elements of a dress shirt carry different weights in deciding the style and formality of the shirt. In order to properly understand dress shirts one must know how these different elements have an effect on the shirt as a whole. We will first discuss the cuffs of a shirt, as they are the principle decider of the formality of a shirt. Single cuffs are the most formal, and should be reserved solely for formal wear (ie white tie, NOT black tie as black tie is only semi-formal), they are characterized by a single cuff closed by cufflinks (basically like button cuffs but without the button). Second in line are double cuffs, aka French cuffs. Least in formality are button (or barrel) cuffs with two buttons being more formal than one. I should also mention portofino cuffs (also called cocktail cuffs or James Bond cuffs because they were sometimes worn by Sean Connery and subsequently Roger Moore while playing Bond). In formality is in between the double and button cuff, it is essentially a double cuff closed via button closure with a cut in the sides of the cuff to show the buttons. Also worthy of discussion is the type of corners cuffs may have, I shall discuss them in order of decreasing formality. The three conventional choices are square (such as pictured below, and the most common for double cuffs), angled/mitered which is characterized by a 45 degree cut on the corner of the cuff (which is not very common for either type of cuff) and rounded (which is most common for button/barrel cuffs).
Cuffs are often the first thing I think about when choosing what shirt I shall wear on any given day. For if I am not going to be wearing a jacket I am almost certainly relegated to a button cuff shirt which immediately rules out about half of my shirts (see rule 13). Unless of course I am to wear the shirt with my sleeves rolled up (but not rolled up past the elbows). However, if I am going to be wearing a jacket then both french and button cuff shirts are fair game and I then need to concern myself with the color and collar of the shirt as well as the cufflinks if applicable.
In the next installment we will discuss the collar.