Men’s formal shirts chill out

Bib-fronted shirts with laidback cool are discovering a life beyond black tie, says Tom Stubbs

Burberry cotton shirt, £295
Burberry cotton shirt, £295

Evening shirts with a contrasting “bib” panel in a textured material or pleats may be one of the foundations of a black-tie dress code, but now they are being reimagined in casual fabrics and cuts – giving them a new laidback air.

From left: Maison Margiela cotton shirt, £430, Massimo Alba modal/cotton Kos shirt, £140, and Valentino cotton shirt, £425
From left: Maison Margiela cotton shirt, £430, Massimo Alba modal/cotton Kos shirt, £140, and Valentino cotton shirt, £425

Italian Massimo Alba – a maestro with a variety of soft, washed cloths – has made bib fronts one of his brand signatures. Grandad-collar shirts feature a plain rectangular panel, and this season come in a tactile modal/cotton mix that has an almost light-cashmere feel, in white, Prussian blue, burgundy (£140, pictured below centre) and a sophisticated dark green. They are especially cool worn untucked, and have become something of a uniform for a normally straight-laced TV presenter client of mine, who teams them with jeans in winter and linen versions with loose shorts in summer.

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Maison Margiela’s slate-blue cotton pin-tucked bib-front shirt (£430, pictured top far right) walks the line between casual and smart; it can be worn with simple tailoring for relaxed eveningwear or with a bow tie to bring a more formal outfit down a notch or two. I’ve seen similar versions in denim – such as Burberry’s pin-tuck washed denim shirt (£295) – work really well with a bow tie at evening awards bashes.

From left: Comme des Garçons polyester shirt, £540, Balmain cotton shirt, £600, and JW Anderson cotton shirt, £360
From left: Comme des Garçons polyester shirt, £540, Balmain cotton shirt, £600, and JW Anderson cotton shirt, £360

This brings me to a key point: what makes these bib shirts in casual cloths interesting is how they bridge day and eveningwear. Take those from Valentino (£425, pictured far right); the blue multi-stripe or fine-checked cotton make them handsome work shirts, but the bib frontage means they can comfortably cross over to night. Ditto Burberry’s oversized-house-check shirt (£295, right of main picture), where the pattern becomes fragmented by the bib’s fine pleating. 

From left: Burberry check cotton shirt, £295, and Turnbull & Asser denim/cashmere shirt, £225
From left: Burberry check cotton shirt, £295, and Turnbull & Asser denim/cashmere shirt, £225

More directional versions can be found at Comme des Garçons, where deconstructed bib shirts (£540, pictured bottom far left) have frayed seams. They add edge to sleek tailoring – as does a smart blue striped shirt (£370) with starchy white bib and cutout panel. Balmain’s distinguished bib format (£600, pictured second from top far right) evokes 19th-century officers’ dress shirts with its angular bib, wing collar and lace-up placket that can be worn open. Meanwhile, JW Anderson’s fine-stripe grandad-style shirt (£360, pictured left) has bib panels in contrasting stripes with welt pockets, fabric-covered buttons and sleeves that can be shortened with buckles. And Alexander McQueen contrasts a relaxed cotton-poplin Nehru collar with a formal clean bib that has tiny stud-like fastenings (£640). The stunning ivory plongé leather version (£1,595) really exhibits that McQueen flair of old.

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Venerable British shirtmakers breaking with tradition include Turnbull & Asser, which has debuted a denim pleat-fronted shirt (£225, pictured far left) made with four per cent cashmere. But bespoke creations can go even further, such as those in striking black marcella (£325). I work with Steven Quin, retail director and head of the London bespoke service, on commissions for a super‑natty musician client, and we’ve recently been contemplating pleat bibs in dark metallic greys and sheeny, inky-blue cotton twills by Thomas Mason. They look damned cool. We’ve also considered white or navy ultra‑light voile, and a pleated ruffle-effect in French silk from Henry Bertrand. An outré Rod Stewart-heyday bib fantasy, perhaps, but it gives some idea of the scope of a genre of shirts that once seemed very buttoned-up indeed.

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