The intricacies of men’s dress shirts can seem baffling whether you wear nice suits to the office every day or just need to look fantastic for one particular event. When you look at all the variations in collars, cuts, fabrics, and cuffs, a shirt is not just a shirt! For example, when you compare french cuffs vs barrel cuffs, what is the difference?
The main difference between French cuffs and Barrel cuffs is that French cuffs have a double length meant to fold back, while barrel cuffs use a single layer of fabric. Another key difference is that barrel cuffs form a simple circle around the wrist in the shape of a barrel. French cuffs require a cuff link or French knot closure, while barrel cuffs always fasten with a button.
In this article, you will learn the key differences between these two popular shirt cuff styles. You will discover when to wear each one for the best effect. Finally, I will compare French and Barrel cuffs to other popular cuff styles.
French Cuffs vs Barrel Cuffs: Key Points
Take a look at this chart to get a quick overview of the key differences between French and barrel cuffs.
|Double length to fold up
|Single layer of fabric
|Either overlapping barrel shape or edges-out kissing style
|Cylindrical barrel shape
|Can vary, but often feature formal mitered corners
|Can vary, ranging from informal square corners to casual rounded corners to formal mitered corners
|Links or French knots
|Types of Fabric
|Usually soft, on fused interfacing
|Either stiffer fused interfacing or softer unfused interfacing
|Types of Shirt
|Most common on shirts for black-tie events
|Most button-down shirts feature this style
|When to Wear
|Formal events or with a suit in a formal workplace
|With an everyday suit, with a blazer, or with jeans or khakis for a dressed-down style
What are French Cuffs?
French cuffs have a double-cuff style and use links or fabric knots as closures. Traditionally, this cuff style has the most formal appearance of any shirt cuff style. You often see it at black-tie events or with formal three-piece business suits.
French cuffs did not necessarily originate in France. The style of wearing elaborate cuffs on shirts has a long history in fashion, reaching past the 1600s when nobles and kings wore lace or stiffened fabric at their wrists. This had several purposes, ranging from hiding snuff stains on their wrist to indicating social status. Obviously, anyone wearing fancy white cuffs did not engage in manual labor in the fields!
The name probably emerged because Americans adopted the use of this double cuff style after seeing it worn by French people in the 1700s.
Today, the French cuff has a slightly more fussy nature than many of the more pragmatic styles that developed for ordinary white-collar men over time.
When you put on a shirt with French cuffs, you have to fold back the lower half so that it lies on top of the other half of the cuff. You then need to locate the four tiny stitched holes that look like small buttonholes and insert a cuff link to hold the two halves of the cuff in place.
You can wear French cuffs with the edges facing out, in a kissing style, or with one edge overlapping the other in a less formal style. Either way, the link will hold the layers of fabric together.
But the extra crispness of the double-fold style and the placement of links can also make this shirt look extra special and allow you to personalize more by selecting a cuff link that says something about you.
What are Barrel Cuffs?
Barrel cuffs wrap around the wrist in a single round layer with overlapping edges that look like a barrel. You will also commonly see this style called a button cuff because it closes with a button and buttonhole instead of a link.
Most button-down and dress shirts today use the simple barrel style. You can find many stylistic variations in barrel cuffs, such as one, two, or three buttons arranged vertically down one edge. You can also find barrel cuffs in fused or unfused fabric, which alters the stiffness of the fabric.
In general, barrel cuffs have a more casual appearance than French cuffs. This is partly due to the history of French cuffs, as only the nobility wore this fancy style originally. But pragmatically speaking, barrel cuffs take less work to wear and offer an easier solution for workday wear.
Shirts with barrel cuffs also cost less in many cases, as your average off-the-rack shirt will sport a barrel cuff at least 90% of the time. You often have to order shirts from specialty tailor shops or high-end menswear labels if you want French cuffs.
What is the Difference Between French Cuffs and Barrel Cuffs?
The key difference between french cuffs and barrel cuffs is that French cuffs have a long extension that folds back on top of itself to create a folded style, while barrel cuffs form a single cylinder around the wrist. The other main distinction between the two popular styles is that barrel cuffs close with a button, while French cuffs close with a link.
French cuffs feature a double length or an extension that you fold back over the top half of the cuff, while barrel cuffs feature a single layer of fabric just long enough to reach past your wrist bone.
This means that French cuffs have twice the depth of barrel cuffs, though when you wear them folded up, they will both reach the same point on your hand.
Barrel cuffs always form a simple cylindrical shape around the wrist, while French cuffs can form two different shapes depending on the fastening method.
Barrel cuffs look like an extension of the cylinder of your sleeve, with just a small overlap where one edge of the cuff closes on top of the other so the buttons can go through the button holes. This simple round shape looks like a barrel, which is where this style gets its name!
French cuffs, in contrast, can close around your wrist in two different ways. For a simple, less formal appearance, you can wrap two layers of the cuff on top of the other two layers, much like a fancier version of the barrel cuff. You then use a link to hold the overlapped layers in place.
For a more formal and unique look called the “kissing” style, position all four edges of the cuff facing out from your wrist, and then use a link to secure them.
French and barrel cuffs can feature multiple corner styles, including square, rounded, and mitered corners.
Barrel cuffs feature square corners more often than French cuffs, as this corner style looks the most casual. You see this on denim, flannel button-down shirts, and some less formal dress shirts.
Rounded corners make a popular choice for many button-down shirts meant to wear with a suit jacket or blazer. You will sometimes find this style on French cuffs as well.
Mitered corners on cuffs have a 45-degree angle of fabric sliced off the tip of the corner. This style looks most formal and you see it quite often on French cuffs.
French cuffs use an external fastener like a link or knot, while barrel cuffs use buttons and buttonholes that come sewn into the shirt.
Barrel cuffs most commonly feature two buttons spaced ¾” apart vertically. Sometimes, you can find barrel cuffs sporting just one button for a less formal look or three for a slightly stiffer, fancier style.
Cuff links, sometimes also called studs or just links, are small pieces of jewelry designed to pin the layers of a double cuff together. The most common type of cuff link looks like two small discs with a slender chain in the middle. This double-panel cuff link features two decorative discs and a chain or a post to slot through the holes in the shirt cuff.
Other popular styles of cuff links include clasp, whale back, toggle back, and swivel-bar links. The decorative outer facing section of cuff links can sport anything from diamonds to enamel sports team logos and often serves as a fun way to display your personality or fashion sense.
For less formal occasions, you can use a fabric closure for your French cuff shirts called a French knot. It looks like two rope or ribbon knots with a bit of string between them. One knot goes into each side of the cuff, holding it shut.
Types of Fabric
Both French and Barrel cuffs can use several different types of material, including either fused or unfused interfacing. This determines the stiffness of the cuff and can help it hold its crisp line.
High-quality shirts usually contain 100% cotton. Sometimes they may contain linen or a small percentage of silk as well. Cheaper button-down shirts contain synthetic fabrics like polyester, which costs a lot less and allows for easy care. Shirt cuffs almost always use the same fabric as the body of the shirt.
However, cuffs often have an additional piece of material sandwiched between the two fabric pieces of the cuff (the part that faces out and the part that touches your hand). This middle layer provides some stiffness and body to the cuff, so it doesn’t flop on top of your hand.
Extra-stiff and usually cheaper cuffs use something called fusible interfacing, meaning that it contains heat-activated adhesives that melt onto the fabric to help it hold its shape. Most high-end shirts use non-fusible interfacing, which is stitched into the inside of the cuff and provides a little body but does not feel stiff or crinkly.
Type of Shirt
Barrel cuffs make the more popular choice for most types of button shirts like casual button-downs, denim or flannel shirts, and everyday business shirts. French cuffs look good on bespoke button-down shirts meant to wear with a formal suit or tux at a black tie event.
Shirts with French cuffs can cost more because you often buy them on high-end shirts for special occasions. Shirts with barrel cuffs often cost much less as they come in many ready-wear styles you can buy at Walmart or any department store.
When to Wear
Traditionally, French cuffs work best on formal occasions or at black tie events, while barrel cuffs serve best for everyday use. But fashion rules have more flexibility in modern times than they did several decades ago, so you will see a lot of variation in the use of French and barrel cuffs today.
Today, looking cool matters more than looking rich or powerful, so barrel cuff shirts appear in various styles.
But wearing a shirt with cuff links does not have to look old-fashioned or super formal. If you work in a casual setting or you hang out with friends who like to wear informal t-shirts and jeans, you may feel overly pretentious in a shirt with French cuffs. On the other hand, plenty of style icons today commonly wear French cuffs with sweaters or less formal outfits as a fashion statement.
How to Wear French Cuffs
With a little practice, you can learn how to wear French cuffs as easily as you wear barrel cuffs! The main difference in learning how to wear French cuffs is that you have to master fastening cuff links.
- Put on your shirt and button the front shirt, so the sleeves don’t hang askew.
- Next, smooth out the shirt sleeves and then fold up the lower half of the cuff. This creates the famous folded lower edge of the French cuff.
- For a basic style, overlap one side of the cuff slightly over the other and align all four holes on top of each other.
- Insert the back of the cufflink through these holes.
- For a double-sided cufflink, work one end through the holes, and your cuff is done! For a clasp cufflink, push the second piece of the link onto the bar of the cuff link at this point, securing the cuff in place.
French Cuff vs Regular Cuff
Regular cuffs is another name for barrel cuffs, which close with buttons instead of cuff links like French cuffs.
You can find barrel cuffs under several different names, including regular, standard, or button cuffs. These names all indicate a simple cylindrical cuff with a button closure.
Can You Wear Barrel Cuffs with a Tuxedo?
Most tuxedo shirts feature traditional French cuffs fastened with links rather than barrel cuffs closed with buttons. French cuffs look fancier, so it makes sense that you typically wear this style for formal or black-tie events!
That said, some modern tuxedo shirts will sport barrel cuffs largely because not all modern men (especially younger ones) want to fuss with cuff links. So you can wear barrel cuffs with a tuxedo if you want to–but it remains the less common option.
If you rent a tux and shirt, you will probably not have the option of barrel cuffs. Most standard tux shirts all come with French cuffs.
French Cuffs vs Button Cuffs
Button cuffs is another name for a standard barrel cuff, which closes with buttons instead of with an external pin or clasp like a french cuff. The other big difference between these two basic types of shirt cuffs is that french cuffs have a double length that folds over, and button cuffs do not.
The majority of all dress shirts feature simple button cuffs. This easy everyday style can look sharp with a suit jacket or more casual with a blazer. You can even wear a shirt with button cuffs in a low-key outfit of a dress shirt, jeans, and loafers!
In contrast, a shirt with French cuffs usually pairs best with formal attire like a three-piece suit or a tuxedo.
How to Measure for a Shirt Cuff
The center-to-cuff and cuff size measurements both help you measure for a shirt cuff.
One of the key measurements you need to make sure your cuff length fits properly is the center-to-cuff measurement. This measurement will help ensure that your cuff extends just beyond your wrist bone, allowing it to peek out from below a suit jacket sleeve.
- Stand with your arm straight out to your side, and then bend your arm, raising your hand until your elbow forms a 90° angle.
- Ask a friend to place the short end of a tape measure at the base of your neck, in the center of your upper back.
- Now have your friend trace the tape from that point straight across to your elbow.
- Next, hold the tape in place at your elbow and run it down the length of your forearm to the base of your wrist bone.
- Write down this measurement and use it as the sleeve length for your shirt.
The other key measurement to know is the width of the cuff. Unfortunately, you will not find a cuff measurement listed in a sizing chart for shirts, as it is usually considered an extension of the sleeve. You may need to try on the shirt to find the best cuff width for you.
You want your cuff to fit loosely enough to feel comfortable around your hand. Ideally, your cuff should measure about 1.75” wider than the circumference of your wrist bone. It should never have a width more than 2” wider than your wrist.
French Cuff Shirts
French cuff shirts always add an interesting style element to your outfit, whether you pick a formal shirt to wear with a tux or a crisp white button-down to wear with a suit at the office. Check out these samples to get an idea of the types of French cuff shirts today!
J.Ver Men’s French Cuff Dress Shirt
This economy option features French cuffs, a spread collar, and a 60% cotton and 40% polyester fabric composition. It comes in twenty different colors, including mint green and salmon and traditional plain white. If you want to look sharp at the office by showing off cufflinks but don’t want to spend an arm and a leg on a bespoke shirt, try this comfortable, durable, ready-wear option!
David Donahue French Cuff Dress Shirt
If you like to feel quality fabric against your skin, try a David Donahue dress shirt made of 100% cotton. This shirt features long-staple cotton for extra durability and softness. It also features a spread collar, French cuffs, and a French placket that makes it ideal for formal occasions or for wearing with a tux. The tailored fit will also present the illusion of a bespoke shirt made just for you!
The biggest difference between french and barrel cuffs is that French cuffs form a double layer with a folded lower edge and barrel cuffs use a single, cylindrical shape around the wrist. Another key difference is that French cuffs close with cuff links and barrel cuffs close with buttons. French cuffs often feel thicker and slightly stiffer because of the folded-over style.
Traditionally, French cuffs have a formal style best suited for black-tie events or for wearing at a formal workplace with a suit. Barrel cuff shirts look fine with a suit but have a slightly more casual appearance. Most ready-wear dress shirts sold today feature the simple barrel cuff rather than the more formal French cuff style.
Have you ever worn a shirt with French cuffs? Did you like it? Leave a comment below to let us know!