Of Fly Fronts and French Cuffs

Posted on May 3, 2013

Canali Flyfront

I bought my first fly-front shirt recently and the process was definitely not as simple as I had thought it would be.  Here’s what I learned . . .

Lesson Number One: Understated Shouldn’t Mean Plain.

The least expensive fly-front I found in my search at Harry Rosen was a basic BOSS model without a bib.  I figured this simplicity would be perfectly suitable for what is essentially a minimalist garment but once it was paired with a naturally understated tuxedo it looked more plain than minimalist.   Furthermore, it required a T-shirt to be worn underneath whereas the bosom on standard formal shirts eliminates the need for this extra layer.  (In retrospect, the fact it was featured in the store’s Hugo Boss department rather than the formal wear department should have been a tip-off.)  Thus any savings I thought I had gained vanished the moment I realized the shirt needed to be replaced.   The replacement (pictured above) was a much more successful venture: a gorgeous Canali model with a piqué-textured bosom and light-as-air body, all fashioned from luxuriously soft cotton.

Lesson Number Two: Price Has Nothing to Do with Fit.

I wore my original shirt for the first time on my recent cruise and was completely caught off guard to find the shirt cuffs cascading over my palms.  (Fortunately a couple of strategically placed safety pins provided a handy short-term solution.)  Following the cruise I returned to Harry Rosen to take advantage of their free alterations policy and that’s when I found the Canali alternative.  This time I made a point of properly trying on the shirt and, lo and behold, its sleeves were also much too long.

I find it simply inexcusable for formal shirts of this caliber to be constructed with superfluously long sleeves.   They should be offered in a variety of sleeve lengths to best suit the buyer just like all other quality dress shirts.  Instead, these particular models utilize a standard ploy of  mainstream manufacturers which is to provide a variety of neck sizes but no choice of sleeve sizes.  The result is that the sleeves are made long enough to fit the tallest of men leaving all others to deal with at least an inch of redundant fabric.

This shortcoming may be tolerable with regular shirts because a button cuff’s snug fit naturally prevents it from sliding beyond the wrist.  At worst, you only end up with folds of cloth along the sleeves, some of which is actually necessary to allow them to extend slightly when one’s arms are outstretched.  However, the loose fit of French cuffs does not allow for this sort of buffer.  Sleeves that are short enough to end at the wrist of a hanging arm will end up pulling back too much when the arm is outstretched while sleeves that allow for a full reach will fall past the wrist when the arm returns to resting position.

To strike a smart balance  the sleeves need to be just long enough to fall slightly below the wrist when the arm is hanging.  This explains why French cuffs typically protrude farther from suit sleeves than regular cuffs – something I never realized until now.  But it is very difficult for men of various physiques to purchase a shirt that fits so precisely if the shirt’s sleeves are available in only one length per neck size.

Lesson Three: A Stitch in Time

So if you can’t buy the correct sleeve length you are forced to alter the incorrect length.    To successfully achieve this there are a few important guidelines for the fitting process:

  1. as with any cotton garment, wash the shirt before altering it to allow for shrinkage
  2. use cufflinks to properly fasten the cuffs rather  than just folding them back
  3. wear a jacket over the shirt because jackets typically pull up slightly on a shirt’s sleeves
  4. pin the sleeves to the desired length (rather than just eyeballing or measuring them) so you can see exactly how they will look when your arms are hanging and outstretched

Bonus Points: Sleight of Hand


Finally, you may want to try a simple trick that will allow you a choice of sleeve length on the go: add a second buttonhole to the inner part of the cuff.  Just like the two buttons on a regular cuff offer a choice of circumferences to fit different wrist sizes, two backing buttonholes on a French cuff provide for different amounts of overlap.  This can be quite handy considering that different suit jackets can affect sleeve length by different amounts and that shirts can shrink over time.  Some shirtmakers actually offer these adjustable French cuffs on their products, the aforementioned BOSS model being one such example.

Posted in: Formal Fashion