FOR MEN, few wardrobe choices are as fraught with danger as the short-sleeve, button-front shirt. Get it wrong and you look like Dilbert, or Michael Douglas in "Falling Down." Get it right and you come off as cool as Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine or rapper Kanye West. This summer labels, including Prada, Versace and Alexander McQueen, are doing their own riffs on the much-maligned men's shirt.
So why risk looking like Houston Mission Control circa 1969? The payoff is versatility -- the collar screams business, but the sleeves say, "Friday's coming." Add epaulets and a tie to a tailored silhouette and the short-sleeve shirt achieves spring's military-inspired look -- hardly nerd-wear. The short sleeves are practical as well; why cart those cuffs to a Fourth of July barbecue if you don't have to?
To learn how to go short on the sleeves but not on style, we checked in with Aristotle Circa, an L.A. stylist whose clients include Jake Gyllenhaal, Duran Duran and rapper/actor Redman. For the last two years he's been the man behind the look of Maroon 5, a band that's almost made pocket protectors chic. When they played on "The Today Show" last summer, Levine rocked a white, short-sleeve button-front by APC, a skinny black tie by Dior Homme and black YSL trousers -- on most people, that would add up to standard-issue Geek Squad. Not with Circa's touch of the ironic.
How did Maroon 5's "Today Show" look come about?
That was part of a transition from a suit-and-tie look when their second album came out to the current more relaxed look with the layered Veronique Branquinho and Rick Owens T-shirts. Adam [Levine] called the outfit he wore on "The Today Show" his "Falling Down" look.
What if my office is the corner cubicle and not the concert stage?
It might not be completely appropriate in some settings -- like finance -- but a well-fitted shirt, worn elegantly with dress slacks and a tie could work -- but it's hard for a lot of guys to pull that off without looking dorky.
Ah, the "D" word. What's the best way to avoid that?
Prints risk looking a little " Palm Beach." Plain white shirts are hard because with black pants they feel a bit "service industry" and with chinos they look "everyman."
So you're saying unless you front a band, steer clear of the plain white shirt?
No, with jeans a solid white short-sleeve shirt would be a whole different look. I think monochromatic can work -- something like a navy blue, with navy blue slacks and a navy blue tie; maybe accented with a brown belt and brown shoes. For the workplace I'd probably stick with a solid. In other environments you could have a little fun with things like stripes. But plaids are played out.
What about the silhouette?
A tailored look can keep a short-sleeve button-front from looking too "worky." But you don't want to go skintight, because most of these shirts don't have stretch, and you want mobility -- especially in the summer.
What's your take on tucked versus untucked?
Wearing it a little longer takes the short sleeve out of the realm of being your dad's button-up shirt. Choose a style that's just long enough to tuck in if you want to, but just short enough so if you leave it untucked you won't look sloppy.
Any fabric recommendations? Like trying silk instead of cotton?
A short-sleeve, silk button-front is not territory everyone can go into -- it makes me think of gold chains -- but you can't go wrong with sturdy cotton.
When it doesn't work, the short-sleeve shirt look screams "nerd." What does it say if a guy can pull off the look?
You like looking good and you take care of yourself, but you have a sense of humor and don't take yourself too seriously.
What about wearing a short-sleeve shirt with a tie or a vest?
I personally pair one with a vest, but sometimes it runs the risk of looking like you're trying too hard. If you do wear a vest, it should be one that looks like it was part of a three-piece suit and paired with jeans and a nice button-front. And a black, skinny tie is a bit cliché, but if you are younger and going for a mod look, then do it.
Is there anyone who should avoid this look altogether -- certain age groups or body types?
I'm a firm believer in trying everything. First, buy a less expensive shirt, try different fits and cuts and see how you look, wear it around and see what kind of reaction you get. Men have more of a sense about these things now -- they're becoming more intuitive. My rule is: If you think you look like a clown, you probably do. Then you can invest in more expensive pieces that will last.
If a guy wants to add just one short-sleeve button-front to his wardrobe, what would you recommend?
I don't think any man can ever go wrong with Ralph Lauren. It may not be the most contemporary, but it is classic American men's sportswear.
But good short-sleeve button-fronts aren't particularly easy to find, so what I do is take some of my favorite dress shirts that I'm sick of to my tailor. I mark where I want the sleeves to end -- about the middle of the biceps-- and have them made into short-sleeve shirts. You can also pull in the armhole a little bit, add a cuff, a button on the outside or even a notch to make it fun in a Ben Sherman sort of way. For $15 worth of alterations, you can turn a $250 shirt you don't wear anymore into something new.
You seem to operate on a "If it feels OK, it probably is" philosophy. Are there any situations where a short-sleeve, button-front shirt definitely should not be worn?
Maybe a formal wedding -- or the Oscars.