For those at the very top of the shirt food chain there is a debate that rages on as to who makes the best shirt in the world. That the outcome would be a Jermyn Street Shirtmaker is a given. Usually the toss up is between a bespoke shirt by Turnbull & Asser or its next door neighbour Hilditch & Key.
This is a very rarefied argument because their bespoke shirts cost around £200 each and most men don’t spend that much on shirts.
A little further down Jermyn Street there are more realistically priced shirts available from the likes of TM Lewin, Hawes & Curtis, Thomas Pink and Charles Tyrwhitt. Each of these outfitters produce shirts which have the Jermyn Street quality tailoring we expect, but can be available for as low as 10% of that figure, in the case of TM Lewin, which is currently running its ever popular 5 shirts for £100 campaign.
Not having ever purchased a bespoke shirt myself I don’t know for sure but I doubt that I would find a single £200 shirt to be 10 times as good as the ones from T M Lewin.
So in a galaxy not that far away, shirt wars are underway. Who makes the best formal shirts?
Heritage & Claim to Fame
T M Lewin: Heritage goes back to 1898 as a Jermyn Street outfitter founded by Thomas Mayes Lewin. TML’s claim to fame is that they invented the ‘coat shirt,’ i.e. the modern shirt. Before TML popularised its ‘coat shirts’ shirts were pulled over the head, a la rugby shirts, rather than buttoned at the front.
Hawes & Curtis: Heritage goes back to 1913 as a Jermyn Street outfitter founded by Ralph Hawes and Freddie Curtis. Their claim to fame is that they popularised the windsor cut away collar designed for their most famous client, the Duke of Windsor
Thomas Pink: Heritage goes back to 1984 founded by three brothers who decided to name their store after the 18th century tailor Thomas Pink who popularised the red hunting coat. Though the company is only 30 years old, it trades on a heritage that is over 200 years old, either cleverly or disingenuously, depending on your perspective, by linking itself with Thomas Pink. It is now part of the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey (LVMH) Group.
Charles Tyrwhitt: Heritage goers back to 1986 as a mail order firm founded by Nicholas Charles Tyrwhitt Wheeler but which rapidly established a reputation for good customer service and fine tailoring. It opened its Jermyn Street Headquarters in 1997. Tyrwhitt’s claim to fame is that they offer the full outfitting experience, from formal to casual, from shoes, through rugby shirts, to formal shirts, to suits. In so doing they have stolen a march on their competitors here who are trying to catch up.
If longevity and authenticity of heritage matter to you then TML and H&C are way ahead here. They have been Jermyn Street outfitters for over a century.
Perceived Quality & Fit
All of these outfitters make good looking shirts, which look and feel like high quality items. They all feature a split back yoke and non fused collars with removable collar bones, though CT alone offers brass bones as standard; the others settle for plastic. The shirts are tailored from quality cotton fabrics, either 2 fold or Egyptian, and feature exquisite tailoring. Where the shirts are patterned the pattern is consistent across the shirt, cuffs, placket and pockets. None have the consistency of Hilditch & Key, however, who insist on matching the pattern from yoke into the sleeves.
H&C formal shirts now feature a silk touch finish, CT offer a monogramming service and will add a pocket for you if you wish, whilst TP are obsessed with getting the shape of their collars exactly right. TML has a similar obsession with collars and with a range of fits, to which I will refer shortly.
There is very little to separate them in my view on perceived quality, though I suggest that Thomas Pink and TM Lewin seem to possess slightly higher levels of perceived quality that is difficult to quantify.
On fit I am equally subjective, as I refer to how these shirts fit me. For me TML is ahead of the pack here. They offer 4 different sleeve lengths for most shirts, short, regular, long and extra long, meaning that most men can find a shirt to fit their body shape.
In my case, their 16½ collar and 36 inch sleeve slim fit shirts seem to fit me exactly right. A similar situation pertains for Thomas Pink. Though they do not offer the same range of sleeve lengths, I can find 16½ collar 36 sleeve shirts. For both H&C and CT the fit is not quite as good for my body shape. The sleeve lengths run slightly shorter than TML and for a man with freakishly long arms that is an issue. H&C counter this by offering some shirts with sleeve lengths up to 37 inches. Where available, these address that issue for men like me.
CT regrettably do not offer the option of 37in sleeves on 16½ collar shirts. In addition, as someone with wide shoulders, I fall somewhere between CT sizes 16½ and 17. 17 fits my shoulders better but is too large around the collar. 16½ fits the collar better but is close on the shoulders and slightly short on the sleeve.
I concede that others with a different body shape may rank these differently. For me, overall it’s TML leading for fit with CT bringing up the rear split by TP and H&C respectively.
Fabrics & Colours
H&C lead this one for me followed by TP. H&C offer a very wide range of colours and patterns. As someone who likes slightly less conservative shirts this resonates well. However, they also cover the basic blues and whites very well. TP similarly has a range of colourful stripes and checks but also has a white shirt bar with a whole range of white shirt possibilities to explore.
As someone who appreciates Winchester shirts, H&C always has a good range within their collection.
This is not to suggest that TML and CT don’t have a good range of fabrics and colours. CT is the most conservative of the 4 in my view, but has recently launched an interesting range of diamond weave and Egyptian cotton shirts. TML is in third place here for me. A great range of fabrics and colours, very strong on the twills in solid pastel colours, which form the backbone of a shirt collection, but not as strong as H&C on the range of its fabrics and colours.
Range of Shirts
Each of the four outfitters has a large range of formal shirts, somewhere in the region of 350-450 shirts, in a a range of fits. Most have shirts in 4 different fits. H&C’s are probably the most obvious. In ascending order of ‘fittedness’ they offer Classic Fit, Tailored Fit, Slim Fit and Extra Slim Fit. TML counter with Regular fit, Slim Fit, Fitted and Super Fitted. TP unusually offer Athletic Fit, Classic Fit, Slim fit and Super Slim Fit. CT simply offer three fits, Classic, Slim and Extra Slim. Within these fits buyers can choose from cut away collars, semi cut away or classic collars.
I confess that I miss the days when H&C and TML had ranges within these fits. H&C had its St James shirts which were slim fit and cut away collar and Ludlow shirts which were tailored fit with semi cut away collars. Similarly, TML had its Duke of Windsor range with a cutaway collar and Duke of York with a narrower spread. Those days are gone, it appears, in favour of a descriptor, e.g., Slim fit shirt with a cut away collar.
H&C appear to have the largest number of formal shirts on sale. However, when you factor in the additional sleeve lengths that TML stock, they actually marginally have the largest range. It should mean whatever your size you can find something to fit.
TML narrowly takes this category with H&C very close behind. TP has the wooden spoon here.
All of these retailers have a retail price that is roughly similar, around £80. In reality, only Thomas Pink actually charges those prices for its shirts with any regularity. TP is alone in not offering any multi-buy offers. All the others have multi-buy offers, typically 4 for £100, though there are variations on this. At the moment TM Lewin is offering a 5 for £100 deal. Hawes & Curtis counters with a 3 for £75 offer, whilst Charles Tyrwhitt at the moment has single shirts available from 19.95 as well as its 4 for £100 offer.
This sets up an interesting conundrum. TML offers best value with its 5 for £100 but requires you to spend a minimum of £100 to benefit whilst CT allows you to spend as little as £19.95 for a single shirt, though the number of shirts actually on offer at this price is very limited.
Given the price advantage of the other 3 outfitters you need to truly value TP over the others to spend the extra money. It’s for this reason that I have so few TP shirts in my collection.
How well do these shirts last after laundering and hard wear? I’m probably not the best judge of this. I have a large shirt collection which means that my shirts are relatively lightly worn. They aren’t worn each week because truth be told I have enough shirts to be able to wear a different formal shirt to work for about 3 months before I have to start repeating myself.
However, I have a number of shirts from each of these manufacturers in my collection and they have worn well. They all undergo some shrinkage after repeated washing, perhaps most noticeable on the H&C shirts but very minimal. They hold their shapes very well, the collars don’t curl and the fabrics don’t bobble. The one exception to this latter category is a single Twill shirt from H&C which has begun to develop some bobbling on the front panel.
In some ways it is not a fair comparison as I have far more H&C and TML shirts than TP and CT shirts. so I know quite well how TML and H&C shirts perform over the long term based on a large number of shirts. In the case of CT, most of my collection are still quite new so I will have to see how they age after a few years of wear. However, those that aren’t new have worn very well so I expect no different from the newer additions.
This is a difficult one to call as they all perform very well, as you might expect. I think it’s probably TP narrowly in the lead here followed by CT, TML and H&C. However, they are all excellent.
TM Lewin are the clear leader on the number of stores across the UK, with around 100 across the country including nearly 40 in and around London, as well as a few internationally. TML’s international presence is far exceeded by Thomas Pink, who have the greatest number of international stores. With some justification they describe themselves as the world’s leading international shirt brand. However, they have a relatively small UK presence with around 16 standalone shops. However TP are also the only ones to operate in department stores like John Lewis or House of Fraser as well as their own shops. Hawes & Curtis has been expanding over the last 7 years and now have around 21 shops nationwide and 2 internationally. CT has the smallest number, 17 shops across the country and another 6 internationally.
In each case, you are better served by these shops if you are in London and the South East than in the north of the country, and you are far more likely to find a TML shop than any of the others.
Customer service in these stores is very good; they are on the whole staffed by attentive and knowledgeable staff. TML fits my personality. They are happy to leave me to browse but somehow manage to be available when I do decide that I need to talk to someone. H&C are similar; very happy for me to browse without trying to help me too early. CT can feel a little sales heavy, though they are the store that probably has the best customer service reputation. Despite this, my critique of CT is that their flagship Jermyn Street store often feels to me a little too busy for my liking. When I do need some help it’s not as quick as I want it because the attendant is doing something else or too busy with someone else. I don’t feel quite as valued a customer as I do in TP or TML & H&C. However, when I do get some attention it is professional and high quality.
TML leads on this one, particularly for a northerner like me. No H&C or CT in my nearest large city, Newcastle. However there is a TML and Fenwick’s has a TP department. My nearest H&C and CT are either in Edinburgh or Leeds, both about 2 hours away. Note to H&C and CT: you need more Northern stores!
All 4 outfitters offer high quality websites with high quality images and multiple images to enable online shoppers to get a good idea of their products. CT’s website is the best. It’s easy to use and it has some very high quality images, followed closely by TML. However, CT’s site alone offers suggestions of accessories to complement a shirt and uniquely offers the opportunity to see how different ties and cufflinks might look with a shirt. Very clever stuff.
TP and H&C are much of a muchness. Good and useful sites but lacking that last level of functionality that set’s them apart. For those like me who regularly shop online the quality of the website is significant because I spend far more time in the online stores than in the high street shops.
CT wins this category. Easily.
Delivery and Returns
Where there isn’t a shop nearby you each company has an extensive online offering, with access to their full range. Thomas Pink is currently offering for a limited time free delivery worldwide and has a free delivery service for orders over £50. Given the price of its items most orders will qualify. Standard delivery is around £5 for all the stores apart from H&C which has delivery charges from under £3.
Where there is significant difference is on returns. TP offers a 28-day return policy but offers free returns via Collect Plus. TML alone offers free returns via Freepost but offers a 90-day returns policy. TML is happy to process returns in store of items purchased online. H&C matches TML’s return policy but requires customers to pay for the cost of returns. My experience is that they are less adept at handling online returns in store. CT offers the most generous returns policy, up to 6 months but like H&C does not cover the cost of returns. However CT shops are happy to offer online refunds in store.
When buying online the reassurance that returns will not cost you gives greater confidence about buying. If it does not look quite as great in the fabric as it did online then it doesn’t cost me to find this out if I shop at TP or TML. For CT or H&C it is slightly greater risk.
On delivery, TP walks this but its returns period is the most miserly. This puts TML in the top spot as a buying experience. CT is in the runner up spot with TP. No free deliveries or returns but that 6 month return is unrivalled. One other clever element of CT’s sales is the integration of online and in store sales. So all CT sales are recorded on the same customer account and an electronic receipt is emailed to me whether I shop in store or online. I suspect that this means that CT has far better information on its customers than any of its competitors.
So having looked at a whole range of issues from the quality of the shirts, to the buying experience, to the heritage one is buying into, which company makes the best formal shirts? There are no losers here. I would be happy to recommend any of the 4 and indeed have done so repeatedly.
However, there has to be someone in position 4 and for me that’s Charles Tyrwhitt. It’s shirts are great but do not seem to fit my particular body shape quite as well as the others. Given that fit is my highest criteria it comes fourth. Given its price point compared to the others without any significant advantages, it’s Thomas Pink that takes lowest step on the podium in third. Great shirts; lovely sense of quality to them but overpriced compared to the competition.
Of the remaining 2 it’s T M Lewin that gets the nod over Hawes & Curtis in my book. The H&C shirts are lovely and I have a large number in my collection but for me the best shirts overall come from T M Lewin.