The French Cuff

A funny thing about WASP culture here in the United States is that it usually involves Americans imitating the British, who themselves are imitating the French.  In other words, when it comes down to it, WASP style is basically French style as viewed through the lens of the British.  There is perhaps no better example of this trend than the classic “French Cuff” dress shirt.

If Mr. Bond wears it, it must be WASP'y.

French Cuffs have long been a staple of the WASP wardrobe.  The reason is simple.  While the standard everyday barrel cuff certainly has its uses, when it comes to making a statement in the boardroom, or impressing at a formal evening event, the French cuff reigns supreme.  So, if you want to dress like a WASP, they need to be in your closet at home.

Admittedly French cuff shirts are more complicated than their standard barrel cuff counterparts.  You’ll find they take a little more time and effort to prepare and put on.  They require some additional specialized accessories.  And they’re not suitable for every occasion.  However don’t let any of that put you off because, when worn properly, french cuffs add a subtle touch of class and flash to your outfit that can help you stand out among the competition.

The Beginnings:

Alexandre Dumas: Literary royalty and possible father of the modern French cuff shirt.

According to popular culture the double cuff shirt first became popular in the 1840’s with the publication of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.  One of the book’s antagonists, Baron Danglars, is described as having extravagant adornments set on the turned back sleeves of his shirts.  French tailors of the time began making shirts imitating those turned back or “French” style cuffs, as they soon came to be known.  The trend quickly caught on among the well to do in Britain, sealing its place in WASP culture.  Since then French cuffs have remained popular the civilized world over to varying degrees ever since and have actually undergone a bit of a resurgence within the past couple years.  Even so, it’s good to remember that regardless of trends, like most classic WASP wear, they’ve never gone completely out of style and never will.

What You Need to Know:

Three Stages of the French Cuff: Unfolded, Folded, and Linked.

The good news when it comes to French Cuff shirts is “not much”.  Aside from the cuffs, they’re identical to any other  dress shirt out there.  But about those cuffs… You’ll likely notice three things right away:

  • The sleeves (the cuff portion at least) are way too long
  • There are too many (four) holes
  • There are too few (zero) buttons

What’s going on here?  Well it’s not that complicated.  Remember that French cuffs are actually turned back cuffs, in that you must fold the end of the sleeve back over on itself before it can be worn.  Once that’s accomplished you’ll find (assuming you’ve got a shirt that fits) that the sleeve is now the proper length.

How do you know where to make the fold?  Easy!  Just line up the holes, one on top of the other, and make your fold.  Bend the now doubled-back cuff over the top of your wrist and line up the two remaining holes on each end.  What you should be left with is all four holes lined up, forming a straight passage through the cuff.  Now there’s just the matter buttons, or rather, the lack of any.  But don’t worry because that brings us to…

A Word on Cufflinks:

Basic cufflink anatomy. Note the broad top, the vertical stud, and the hinged back.

In place of the buttons that normally fasten the cuffs of a shirt, french cuff shirts rely on cufflinks.  Cufflinks are at their most basic are matched pairs of fasteners, usually consisting of a broad top, a stud, and a hinged back that rotates from vertical to horizontal to lock the shirt cuff in place.

Going back to the example above, once you have your cuff folded over and aligned, take the cufflink and pass the stud completely through the hole.  Next, flip the hinged back into the horizontal position to lock the link in place.  One thing to watch is to make sure you insert the cufflink in the right direction.   the top of the cufflink should be aligned with the top of your wrist and the hinged portion with the bottom of your wrist.  With your arms at your side you’ll want the decorated portion of the cufflink facing out.

Specialty cufflinks are a great way to personalize your look. They can also serve as good conversation pieces.

Yes, it’s true that cufflinks can be a bit of a headache.  They require additional cost, extra time to put in place, and if you forget them then you’re while traveling you’re going to look silly.  However, cufflinks have some real benefits as well.

For example, they provide an outlet for creative expression, something that’s often difficult to do while wearing a suit (appropriately at least).  Are you really into sailing?  Get some nautical themed cufflinks.  Avid golfer, how about some duffer style links?  The options are essentially limitless.  Whatever your interests, chances are that someone makes a cufflink to go with it.

Then there’s the “dress to impress” factor.  Here cufflinks give you a chance to make a statement by adding a little extra flash to your ensemble.  Let’s face it, when it comes to jewelry, men (WASP’y men at least) are very limited in their options.  Basically you can wear a watch, a school ring, a wedding ring, and… that’s about it.  Cufflinks provide an additional opportunity to showcase your superior taste as a well dressed man.

Some Guidlines:

When it comes to wearing French cuffs, there’s really not too much to worry about.  Most of the time it’s simply a matter of picking the right shirt, cuff links, and getting dressed.   However here are a few of my own guidelines that might come in handy.

  • Save your French cuff shirts for the right occasions.  My general rule is that you should only wear them with a suit and tie, or with formal evening wear (black or white tie).  Sport coats and blazers are technically a no-no, but you can get away with it in some situations, as long as you’re wearing a tie.  Anything sans tie and you’ll want to leave them in the closet.  French cuffs are formal by nature and they just don’t look right with a more casual look.  Again, if you’re not wearing a tie, go with the barrel cuffs instead.
  • This shirt does not fit! Ideally you want to show about an inch of cuff. No more, no less.

    Make sure your shirts fit!  This is a good all around rule for any dress shirt, or any shirt period for that matter.  In particular here you’ll want to make sure your sleeves are the correct length.  You’re looking for something that rests just behind the base of your thumb when your arms are at your side.  Ideally you want an inch or so of cuff protruding beyond the sleeve of your suit jacket.

  • Match your cufflinks.  When matching cufflinks, the only thing I really pay attention to is making sure that the color of the metal matches the other hardware in the outfit.  For example, if I’m wearing gold colored cufflinks, I’ll also want to go with a gold colored belt buckle, shoe buckles, brace clips, and watch if possible.  Matching hardware is not critical, especially in terms of your watch (which is really a separate element in my mind), but doing so helps bring everything together.  When it comes to formal dress, it’s the details that make the difference.
  • Select your cuff links appropriately.  When it comes to the design of the cufflinks themselves, it helps to use a little common sense.  Again, cuff links provide a chance to be an individual, but like all things WASP’y subtly is key.  That being said, it’s probably best to steer clear of really obnoxious or potentially offense material, especially when in the company strangers or more casual acquaintances.
  • As a general rule, anything inspired by trucker mud-flaps is not WASP'y.

    Keep it classy.  Along those same lines, it’s generally a good idea to keep the “bling” quotient down as well.  While wearing an iced out pair of $50,000 gold and diamond cufflinks may impress some people, chances are that your average WASP is not among them.  Also, there’s something to be said for not walking down the street with a giant advertisement on your wrist that screams “Rob Me!”  Just remember that despite what “The Donald” would have you believe, expensive alone does not classy nor good taste make.

Next Steps:

  • Nothing fancy here, just go out and buy yourself a shirt with French cuffs and a pair of cuff links.  I’d recommend starting with a simple white dress shirt that can be worn with just about anything.
  • In terms of shopping you can’t go wrong with any of the standard mall department stores.  Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, and Nordstrom in particular are all good options and should have plenty of selection.  Men’s stores like Joseph A. Bank and Brooks Brothers are solid bets as well although prices may be a bit higher.
  • Cufflinks are available in department stores as well, but you may have trouble finding something you like.  I’d recommend looking online to find something unique and more inline with your own personal interests.   Specialty sites such as Just Cufflinks can show you what’s out there.

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