Photo illustration by the god Ben Park, whose shirts always fit just right.

Why Are All My Friends Wearing Their Shirts Too Small?

A writer contemplates your bizarre button issues.

by Hanson O'Haver
Feb 7 2019, 2:29pm

Photo illustration by the god Ben Park, whose shirts always fit just right.

We’re often told that fashion is cyclical. It’s more like a labyrinth, starting at the middle and expanding outward, but the basic point holds. Walk around Bushwick today and the kids all look like townie versions of James Spader in Less Than Zero. Some day soon, lithe Strokes revisionists in Levi’s and leather will seep out of NYU dorms to make us feel awful about our leisurewear decade.

But although times change, not everyone keeps up with new styles. We’re all aware of those Gen-Xers who make a uniform of casual blazers over T-shirts, for example. My own micro-generation of 28–34-year-old male yuppies is not immune to this sort of stasis: all but the most fashion-attuned are wearing their shirts too small.

Specifically, it’s their button-ups—the uniform for semi-fulfilling jobs and the group drinks that go with them—that are at issue. Sometimes they’re too short or the sleeves are too tight, but the most pressing problem is in the chest. When my peers move their arms back, the cloth between the top few buttons strains, sometimes even reveal a bit of chest flesh. They look like Italian dads in Scandi model costumes. I can’t be the only person for whom this fabric tension is palpable. If a button splashes into my beer, will I say anything or just sip around it? Conversations falter as my thoughts turn to the indignity of aging, to indie rock dreams and digital marketing realities.

Williamsburg has changed, but, sartorially speaking, guys are stuck listening to MGMT. When my cohort came of age (roughly 2006–2009), slim fits were in. Perhaps my friends are still buying a smaller size because their idea of how things should look is rooted in their formative years. And in fact, their pants are too tight, too, though this is a matter of taste more than of actually fitting; they’re too tight in the legs, not the waist. (Unlike with shirts, it’s easy to tell when pants no longer fit, as they won’t button. It’s also worth noting that pants that are too short are okay because they look purposeful, in a way that an overtaxed J. Crew oxford does not.) Men have a reputation for failing to properly interrogate their actions as they stumble through the world. In this case, my suspicion is that these guys first began buying their own clothes when they moved away from home, where their mothers shopped for them. They determined what size they were a decade ago, and they haven’t thought to update it since. Meanwhile, frames that were once gangly have steadily gotten sturdier. It happens to everyone; there's nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s worth taking into account when you go to the store.

I recognize that it can be hard to find clothes that hit just right in all places. A writer I admire recently tweeted about such a dilemma. When he buys his shirts in the larger size, they fit in the shoulders but balloon in the stomach. When he sizes down, the shirt is good in the stomach, but the shoulders are too small. Similar sizing struggles are commonplace. In reality, only the larger shirt fits, but there seems to be a widely shared misconception here.

People think of sizes as a spectrum: XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL. Roughly taking into account sleeves, shoulders, chest, length, etc., the hypothetical shopper then places himself on this spectrum. If the shopper finds that between, say, a size medium and a size large, he's mostly closer to a size medium, that’s what he'd buy. There is an obvious logic to this, but it’s not how fitting works. Consider bedsheets. Say you have a queen size bed and accidentally buy a king size sheet. There might be some extra fabric, but the sheet will fundamentally do its job of covering the mattress. Now let’s say you have a king size bed and you buy a queen size sheet. Part of the mattress is now bare, because the size that is too small does not fit.

Here is my solution: if you’re not sure what size you need, get the bigger one. (And even if you think you know, check again.) A tailor could take it in so that the side seams fall nicely against the torso, but that’s a tall order for people who haven’t reassessed their closets in years. It’s cool to keep it loose, hence the expression “hang loose.” You don't have to go Absolute Unit; just give yourself a bit of breathing room. A roomy button-up only looks goofy if you stand still and stare in the mirror and put your arms like that. When you’re out in the world, it will just be a normal shirt that doesn’t make people worry about the integrity of its stitching.

I do recognize that what other people wear is none of my business. If you like your tiny shirt, you can keep it. There are no rules, but still, I’m right on this. In recent years, we’ve been subjected to a barrage of articles about how men are finally trying to look their best. In practice, this often just means wearing expensive sneakers and buying balding medicine from subway ads. When it comes to clothes, guys still seem to be a bit lost in the woods, wearing size medium lumberjack shirts. Both publicly and privately I have witnessed men lament their wardrobes. They can sense something needs to change, but they’re not quite sure what. It would be futile and a bit rude to try to resolve such a rampant problem individually, so I’m telling everyone all at once: get a bigger shirt.

men's shirts