How To Measure Sleeve Length (Like A Boss)
It's no secret that we at Oliver Wicks see fit as the key to stylish dressing - Hence our slogan, “The Fit That Suits You”. It doesn't matter how expensive or trendy a garment is—if it doesn’t fit well, even the most pricy suit will leave you looking awkward and juvenile. On the other hand, it doesn't matter if it's a business casual or a black tie outfit, whether you last wore a suit to a funeral or live in double-breasted finery, a good fit will always make you look suave and sophisticated.
We often find that men will run into issues measuring their sleeve length, with dress shirts or formal shirts especially, inevitably leading them to ruin otherwise fantastic looks. We want to help! So let's dive deeper into the world of shirt length—from the ideal shirt sleeve length to how to measure shirt sleeves yourself, we'll unpack it all for you so you can focus your efforts on other aspects of your suit wardrobe. After all, learning to measure for a suit correctly is an art in itself.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of measuring dress shirt sleeve length, what is it that makes one type of fit “right” and everything else “wrong”? For that matter, what is the “right” fit?
The ideal fit for a dress shirt is one where the shoulder seam sits right at your actual shoulder. That means right at the point where the shoulder begins to slope, not halfway to your neck or hanging down your arm. A lot of gentlemen struggle with this because it can be notoriously tricky to estimate where one’s shoulder actually ends. But don’t worry! Our measurement system removes any uncertainty and is designed to make the process a breeze, for anyone.
As for the length of your sleeve, your shirt cuff should end right at the break of your wrist. When wearing your suit jacket or blazer, about ½" of shirt cuff should be visible below the suit jacket cuff, when standing in a natural stance with your arms relaxed by your side. When holding a phone to your ear, raising a wine glass, or giving a presentation in the boardroom, it is perfectly normal for your jacket sleeves to ride up a little, so don’t sweat it in such situations where more shirt cuff will be visible, it’s normal.
But what makes those things “right”? Well, when your shoulder seam is correctly positioned, the tailoring of the sleeve is in correct alignment with the moveable area of your joints. Instead of you fighting a tight fabric tube whenever you wish to lift your arm, the fabric moves along with you like a second skin. Having the correct alignment also helps you “stack” the seams of the dress shirt, any knitwear you’re wearing, and your jacket, meaning that they all move as one rather than pulling against one another. This helps maintain the sense of your outfit as a cohesive whole.
As for the sleeves, having your cuff stop directly at the wrist break allows you full mobility of your wrist with no interference from the sleeve. Additionally, having the sleeve end slightly below the sleeve of the jacket keeps it from disappearing into the jacket sleeve every time you move your arm. Think about it, you wouldn’t want to spend a formal event fishing for your shirt sleeve inside your jacket, would you? Plus, having your sleeves end with the shirt puts the natural wear that comes from writing or typing onto the shirtsleeve and not your suit jacket, meaning the damage is a) dispersed amongst different shirts you wear and b) done to the cheaper of the garments you’re wearing.
Until science gives us the perfect spray-on shirt, following tailoring guidelines for sleeve fit is the best way to ensure the ease of movement, comfort, and adaptability that come from sleeves that work with the shape of your body, not against it. Unlike shop window mannequins, which are often meticulously positioned for perfection, we move around a lot, and consequently our shirts need to be able to handle everything from typing, to an enthusiastic dance performance of the YMCA at the office drinks party.
Why does knowing how to measure shirt sleeve length matter? First off, all other arm fit measurements hinge on the sleeves sitting correctly, which includes the length. Too many extra folds-—or worse, not enough fabric—and you may end up feeling like an overstuffed sausage rather than a well-dressed, confident man.
A well-fitting dress shirt feels more comfortable than an ill-fitting one. It also looks more professional. And when you feel at ease in your suit, it communicates ease to everyone else around you as well. Let's be brutally honest, first impressions count. If the first impression you give off is 'can't stop fidgeting with clothes, can’t buy a shirt that fits” what does that say for your skills in other areas of life?
There’s also the fact that if you know your correct shirt sleeve length, you can easily buy dress shirts off the shelf. So you can either spend hours trying on shirts on and trying to determine which ones are right, or walk in, pick up a shirt, pay, and walk out. Even if you still need some alterations, buying shirts with the correct sleeve length (or as close to correct as possible) will also help your tailor, as it simplifies the process of getting the fit perfect.
Wondering what your dress shirt label tells you about sleeve length?
Generally, you'll see either two or three numbers on the label of a dress shirt. The first number is the neck size or collar size, which is typically between 13 and 20 inches. The second number next to that is the sleeve length. It will either be a single number or a range. The average dress shirt sleeve lengths are between 31 and 39 inches.
Let’s address the elephant in the room here - Off-the-rack shirts often cater for neck and sleeve sizing… but what about chest, shoulders, mid-waist etc? A lot of gentlemen fall outside the range of these other fit areas, which can lead to a miserable time and a collection of shirts that all compromise on fit in some way or another. If this sounds relatable, we’d highly recommend checking out made-to-measure shirts, and put an end to any shirt-related frustrations.
So, how do you measure men's dress shirt sleeve length? You just measure your arm length and be done with it, right?
Well, no. Your shirt, unlike your arm, has seams, and you need to be able to envision where those seams will go on a dress shirt. Not to mention, how a sleeve fits into the shirt is so dependent on the style and cut of the shirt. Unfortunately, that means it's going to take a little extra effort to get the correct sleeve measurements for your dress shirt. On the brightside, provided that you’re a fully grown adult, your sleeve length is not going to fluctuate - So do it once, and do it right!
Before you do anything, you need to find a shirt in your wardrobe that fits correctly at the shoulder seam—- it's fine if one of the ratty old T-shirts at the back of your closet makes an appearance right about now, as long as it fits well. As mentioned above, the correct fit means the top seam runs in a straight line from neck to shoulder, and the armhole seam sits right at the very edge of your shoulder where your arm begins to slope down. Wear the shirt alone—no suspenders, belt, tie, bowtie, or vest, even if you usually wear these items with a dress shirt. We'd advise you to wear boxers and not slacks for this, too, so that nothing can interfere with your stance or the way you hang your arms. But if you're shy, it's not that important, as this is a home activity, and not something that you’ll need to send in to the tailors! If your reference garment is a button-up shirt, make sure you actually do the buttons up.
Don't have a t-shirt or shirt that fits that way? You can measure sleeve length from your body too, although it's trickier. Let’s begin:
- First, measure from the nape of the neck to the shoulder seam. Shirtless? Then measure to the exact point where that seam should be sitting. The nape refers to the center of your neck at the spine— in other words, the midpoint of the shirt collar. . If you aren't too sure where your nape is, measure your entire shoulder width, seam to seam, and halve it. Note this number down.
- Next, measure from the seam point down the arm to the wrist bone. Keep your arms relaxed naturally and don't hold the measuring tape super-taut, either. Note this number down as well.
- Add the two measurements together, neck to shoulder and shoulder to wrist, and you have your shirt sleeve measurement!
That’s all the information you need to buy an off-the-shelf dress shirt with an appropriate sleeve length. Despite the number being a sum, it's good to take the measurements separately, especially if you’re planning on getting a made-to-measure shirt, as this gives a better idea of the breadth of your shoulders vs. the length of your actual arms. Getting the shoulders to fit is one of the most important parts of menswear, as they are one of the few areas that can't be easily altered.
The process of measuring your sleeve length is straightforward if you can get a second person to help you. If you don’t have anyone to ask or simply don’t have time to wait for help, it is possible to do it yourself—it's just harder. The key is not letting yourself twist, turn, or tense any muscles, as this will distort your measurements. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
Use a mirror. Use the hand of the arm you aren’t measuring to anchor the tape at your nape. Use your other hand to drape the tape over your shoulder so that it hangs down the side of your arm without drifting, twisting, or bunching up. Relax and look in the mirror. Slowly, making sure the tape does not move, bring your hand to the point of the shoulder seam, press down on the tape to anchor it to your body, then note down the figure. Repeat for the second measurement. You may want to triple-check your body measurements in this situation.
Remember that measuring jacket sleeve length works differently, so don't be tempted to recycle those numbers if you also plan to fit a full suit! However, it never hurts to have a solid grounding in how a suit should fit, as well as having an idea of what styles of suit you’re looking to wear over your dress shirt.
Now that you know the basics of measuring dress shirt sleeve length, let's look at some tips to ensure that perfect fit.
Few of us are exactly on the 0 or the half point of an inch. Round up rather than round down. If your sleeve length falls at 32.3 inches, look for a 32.5 inch sleeve. Also something to keep in mind: not all brands do half-inch sizes. Some may give a range instead, in which case you should look for a range that encompasses your sleeve length (in our example, that would be 32-33 inches.)
Importantly, and for all garment measurements in general - Pull the fabric taught (not overly tightly so that it’s stretching). Taking out the slack can take a 32.3 inch measurement to 33 inch, for example, and it can save a lot of headaches wondering why the garment still came up short, despite having studied this article thoroughly.
If you want to measure the sleeve length correctly, you have to make sure your body is relaxed. You won't be wearing this shirt standing on parade, so don’t measure your body at its most stiff—opt for a looser, natural stance.
While you can learn how to measure your sleeve length yourself, it's never going to be the best result. A second set of hands is going to make it a lot easier.
We’ve all been there! “This measures 14 inches… but I’ll double check… 14.5 inches… huh!” Go for it 3 times to get a balanced measurement, and don’t forget about our rounding up and taking up the slack points above.
If you already have a dress shirt that fits perfectly, use it as your reference garment. Model the fit of your next look on a fit you already love -“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
If you're attending an appointment for a made-to-measure shirt, ordering made-to-measure online, or asking a tailor to alter an existing shirt, don't be afraid to bring a reference photo of the way you want a shirt to fit. This helps ensure that you and the tailor are on the same page.
Most men's dress shirts are made of cotton, which shrinks when you first wash it. (Think of a tea towel or dish rag—it's three or four times the size when you first buy it, then shrinks down to “normal” size in the wash. Cotton garments aren't any different.)
Some of the garments you buy come “pre-shrunk.” In other words, they were washed during the manufacturing process and will not shrink any further. Others need to be sized according to their eventual size, not the size-as-packed, to account for shrinkage.
It's not something you need to think too hard about—most quality pre-packed dress shirts and any good tailor will sell a shirt for its ultimate size, and keep shrinkage in mind during the creation process. So don't run out to buy 36” sleeves if you're actually a 34”. But it's good to keep shrinkage in mind as a possibility. If nothing else, it helps you care for your garment—and a cared-for garment is a smart and great-looking one.
And there you have it! Measuring your dress shirt sleeve length is not hard at all, but it can be a finicky task. But just like knowing when to wear brown shoes with your favorite suit and when to stick with black, it's a skill every stylish man should know. Remember, the Oliver Wicks team is always here to help, so don't hesitate to drop us a line if you ever need sleeve-fitting advice.
Lastly, don’t feel overwhelmed by this article. We’re getting deep in the details, simply because if you’ve landed here then chances are that you’re searching for the ins and outs. The Oliver Wicks measurement process is designed to be easy to follow, and memorizing this post word for word is certainly not a prerequisite! We know that you’re likely not a tailor, and we speak your language.