There's More to a Shirt Cuff Than Meets the Eye

There's More to a Shirt Cuff Than Meets the Eye

David Donahue formal attire. Photo from

Are you confused by the number and variety of available shirt cuff styles? If so, you’re not alone. Originally designed simply to stop your sleeves from fraying, cuffs today are much more versatile and complicated. Depending on the cuff you choose, you can give the appearance of being relaxed and ready for anything, confident and coolly collected, or sophisticated and a bit aristocratic. Who knew that narrow band of cloth hugging your wrist could ever be so important? 

Most ready-made shirts come with barrel cuffs. Simple and clean, a barrel cuff encircles the arm and is held in place by a single button. Some barrel cuffs feature two buttons arranged horizontally so the cuff opening can be adjusted to fit different sized wrists. Great for casual wear, single-button cuffs are generally shorter in length than other types of cuffs and can be easily rolled up to just beneath the elbow for a sporty, active look. A button cuff also might have a smaller button positioned above the cuff called a gauntlet button, which keeps the sleeve opening from gaping and exposing the wearer’s forearm.

Barrel cuffs that feature two or three vertically arranged buttons are slightly more formal. Found on most off-the-rack dress shirts, barrel cuffs with more than one button typically extend beyond a suit sleeve and are a good choice for men with longer arms. Some barrel cuffs, commonly referred to as convertible cuffs, are made with extra holes so they can be adapted for use with cufflinks.

Barrel cuffs come in a variety of edge styles. A rounded corner implies a laid-back, easygoing air. Mitered or angled corners are the hallmarks of sharp, contemporary dressers. And straight or squared corners create an impression of cool, businesslike competence.

For situations where formal attire is required, dress shirts with classic French or double cuffs are appropriate. A French cuff folds back and is fastened with cufflinks rather than buttons. Distinctive and distinguished, French cuffs exude subtle elegance. If you don’t already have a shirt with French cuffs, pick one up. No wardrobe is complete without at least one of these statement pieces.

If you’re looking for the sophistication of a French cuff and the simplicity of a barrel or button cuff, a turnback cuff will do the trick. Worn by film actor Sean Connery in his famed espionage roles, these combination cuffs are sometimes referred to as “James Bond” cuffs. Turnback cuffs, also called cocktail cuffs, fold back over themselves and are fastened with buttons as opposed to cufflinks. Patterned or colored turnback cuffs that offer a contrast to the rest of the shirt are called Napolitain cuffs. These particularly dressy cuffs are typically custom made and are a sure way to add interest to any shirt and jacket ensemble.

When you think about it, it’s ironic that a shirt cuff - only a few inches wide – could have such a dramatic effect on your appearance. But sometimes, details really do count. So the next time you reach for a long-sleeved, cuffed shirt, choose carefully – your selection may be saying more than you think.

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