What are a blouse and a shirt? In days gone by, a blouse was defined as a slack garment worn by women, workmen, peasants, and children over the upper body. Usually, it was worn loosely and then gathered at the waist or hips with either a belt or a waistband.
The “blowsy” effect created by the looseness of the garment gave rise to its name, while the feminine aesthetic created by the drape has seen the blouse become an item usually associated with women.
Like blouses, shirts are an item of clothing worn over the upper body. First conceived as an undergarment worn by men, they’ve since become an all-encompassing term for a range of both under and over garments.
Culturally, there are some significant differences in what’s termed a shirt: American tends to consider a wide variety of upper garments “shirts”, whereas the British tend to reserve the term for garments with a collar, cuffed sleeves, and a full vertical opening fastened with either buttons or snaps.
The terms “blouse” and “shirt” are sometimes used interchangeably, which isn’t helped by retailers taking a slightly haphazard approach to labeling- how many times have you gone into a store to see a garment marked as a blouse, only to go into another store and see the exact same article labeled as a blouse? The confusion can be a little problematic, as the two items are in fact very different.
Shirts are essentially buttoned through and buttoned-down items with a collar. Sleeves can be short or long, while the fit can be tailored, draped, or oversized. Fabrics are typically woven, and usually, the look is relatively formal and “dressy” (although this isn’t always the case – cotton or plaid shirts are no less worthy of their “shirt” status than a classic “dinner” shirt, despite their much more casual, relaxed appearance).
Shirts can be masculine but are not necessarily so- flounces or ruffles are often added to create a more feminine vibe.
Because of their straight fit, shirts tend to fit better on straight body types with regular width shoulders. Men with broad shoulders may find it a challenge to find a shirt that fits well, while curvy women will often struggle to find one that doesn’t gape at the bust.
Unlike a shirt, a blouse doesn’t come with a fully buttoned vertical opening. Blouses rarely have a shirt collar, and will typically have a more fluid, softer appearance than shirts. Like shirts, hem and sleeve lengths can vary, and fabrics are typically woven.
Blouses are available in an almost endless variety of styles and silhouettes, varying from the fabulously fitted to the comfortably oversized. As they tend to be a little more forgiving than stiffly structured shirts, they suit a wider variety of body shapes, from the slender to the voluptuous.
If you thought you were out of the woods now you know the difference between a shirt and a blouse, think again... you’re about to meet the “top”. The difference between a top and a blouse is actually fairly simple, but given how many people refer to anything that covers the top half of the body as a “top” (regardless of whether the garment is a shirt, a blouse, or anything in between), it’s easy to get confused.
So, what exactly is a top? First of all, let’s rule out what isn’t a top. A top is neither a basic t-shirt nor a sweater (regardless of how often your friends insist on calling them one). A top typically has a more stylized look than a simple t-shirt and will be made from a jersey knit. The difference between a blouse and a top? Simple. A blouse is made of woven fabric, while a top is made of a knitted fabric.
Historically, the lines have been clear. Men wear shirts, women wear blouses. But this is 2019, when gender is a construct and people can, within reason and law, wear, do, and say just exactly what they please. If you’re a man with the confidence to wear a blouse, there’s absolutely nothing to stand in your way.
For many working women, blouses are a wardrobe staple. As well as being comfortable and stylish, blouses can be dressed up or down at the flick of a hat, taking you all the way from the office to the bar.
With a bit of fashion acumen, blouses can be paired with jeans, skirts, or trousers, and made to look everything from formal or casual to downright sexy. For the office, most women will opt for tailored, form-fitting versions, but given their versatility, a relaxed blouse can be equally businesslike when partnered with the right accessories.
Depending on where in the world you come from, you may be used to calling a blouse something else entirely. Guimpe, middy, middy blouse, neckline, shirtwaist, shirtwaister, top, shirt, pullover, turtleneck, shell, bodysuit, V-neck, man-tailored blouse, overblouse, peasant-blouse, middy blouse, smock, chemise… the synonyms don’t end there, but for the sake of brevity, we probably should.
Blouses come in an almost infinite number of varieties, but the most popular types tend to fall within the flowing categories:
A button-down blouse features a neck collar, and a buttoned front. Perhaps the most formal of all the options, the button-down blouse tends to be worn primarily as a workpiece (although pair it with jeans or shorts, and it can work equally well for more casual occasions).
Peasant blouses came into popularity in the 1960s but remain a popular mainstay of many women’s wardrobes to this day. Characterized by their square neckline, puffy sleeves and cinched waists, peasant blouses are typically seen as casual wear, but can be surprisingly well suited to more formal occasions when partnered with skinny leg trousers or pencil skirts.
For the fuller busted lady, surplice wrap blouses are a godsend. Unlike shirts that can gape at the chest, surplice wrap blouses can safely accommodate most body types. Their vertical necklines and crisscrossed material give the illusion of a long, lean torso, while their flattering fit makes them as well suited to the boardroom as to the pub.
A saree blouse (sometimes referred to as a choli) is a short blouse worn under a sari. A saree blouse looks something similar to a crop top in design, being cropped at the waist and tightly fitting.
Designed to cover the upper body when wearing a sari, choli’s come in a huge range of colors and patterns, but as a rule will always be made of silk (all the better to match the silky sari, of course).
When it comes to style, the options are limitless, with variations including everything from square and round neck designs to Chinese collars, halter necks, spaghetti straps, high necks, and backless.
Just as a dress is never just a dress, so is a shirt never simply a shirt. For shirt aficionados, the subtle variations can make all the difference between a shirt that never leaves their back, and one that languishes at the back of their wardrobes forever.
The casual, loose-fitting aloha shirt has a convertible collar, big breast pockets, and brightly patterned prints that typically draw inspiration from the flora and fauna of Hawaii. Informal and fun, this is the kind of shirt that looks ideal on a beach, but woefully out of place at the office.
The camp shirt is a causal, half-sleeved, full-length front button closure, boxy cut affair with a one-piece, front opening collar. Aside from the absence of bright patterns (and the addition of the camp collar), the camp shirt has a very similar aesthetic to the aloha shirt.
Despite their name, sport shirts have no association with sports: their name simply refers to the casual, laid-back vibe they project.
Dress shirts are the kind of buttoned-up, sleek, well-fitted garments that have become a wardrobe workhorse for businessmen up and down the land. Typically, a dress shirt will come with full-length sleeves, a stiff foldable collar, and single /French cuffs.
Epaulette shirts can vary in style but can always be recognized by their militarily inspired shoulder straps.
Granddad shirts feature a full front, vertical buttoned closure, and a band collar.
A Henley shirt is characterized by its short placket, round neckline, and complete absence of collar.
Clean, smart, and preppy, the Ivy league shirt manages to straddle the fine line between smart and causal- much like the students who gave it its name.
Think cowboy, and you’ll know exactly what the Western shirt looks like- a high stiff stand collar, front and back shaped yoke, breast pockets with flap, and decorative piping.
For formal occasions, nothing beats the Tuxedo shirt. Typically worn under a tuxedo, the shirt is characterized by a pin-tucked yoke and is usually seen partnered with a bow tie or formal tie.
Other shirts worth a quick mention include: tunic shirts, polo shirts, nightshirts, golf shirts, flannel shirts, lumberjack shirts, and baseball shirts.
The t-shirt is a relatively new invention, having come into existence sometime around 1900. Typically speaking, a t-shirt (which is so named for the T-shape of its body and sleeves) is considered to be a garment worn on the upper body that’s usually made of a lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to clean material (a cotton textile in a stockinette or jersey knit tends to be the most widely used).
Traditionally, t-shirts came with short sleeves and a round (or crew) neck. In recent years, V-neck t-shirts have increased in popularity, largely thanks to their ability to be worn discreetly under an outer shirt without the neckline showing.
Deciding between a shirt or a t-shirt is a relatively simple affair. Shirts tend to lend themselves better to more formal or “dressed-up” occasions, whereas t-shirts are, by their nature, better suited to casual wear. That said, the range of shirts available can sometimes make the line slightly blurred: while a stiffly formal dress shirt might seem hopelessly out of place for a walk in the park, a plaid or cotton shirt would be just as appropriate as a t-shirt.
Just remember the reverse rarely holds true: no matter how expensive the t-shirt, it’s never going to go down well at a job interview or wedding.
Choosing what to wear for an interview is never easy. While a shirt may seem the obvious choice (given its naturally formal aesthetic), a blouse can be just as appropriate with the right styling.
Depending on the circumstances of the interview, a blouse can add a touch of individuality and style to your look… but be careful. Opt for a classic, form-fitting blouse in a neutral color and simple pattern: choosing one with a myriad of clashing prints and contrasting colors is a no-no, while an oversized blouse can seem too casual to be acceptable in a business environment.
A shirt, meanwhile, is often seen as the classic choice, and it certainly works well in corporate environments. It can even work well if the dress code of your new workplace veers more towards the casual side of “business casual” than the business side; just be sure to accessorize with a little more flair and opt for a slightly less “suited and booted” look on your bottom half to avoid looking to try-hard.