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Are French Cuffs Worth All the Bother?

Michael Hoeweler


NO | It's no mystery why more men today prefer plain barrel cuffs. "They're just easier," said Seph Skerritt, the owner of the fashionable Manhattan custom-shirt maker Proper Cloth, who estimates that 85% of his shirt orders are for barrel cuffs. You put on the shirt, you button up the front and the cuffs, and you're done—30 seconds, 45 max.

The French way, you have to put on the shirt, figure out which cuff links to wear, then neatly turn back the cuffs and try to hold them in place while you chase down the cuff link that fell and skittered under the bed. Time elapsed: easily six minutes.

The issues don't stop there. French cuffs tend to be bulkier than the sleeves of today's trimmer suits, and can protrude awkwardly. If you work with a keyboard, they only get in the way. If you're someone who likes to roll up his sleeves, barrel cuffs make the process easier—and eliminate the risk that you'll lose a prized cuff link when you do.

And some men don't like the la-di-da factor. "I think French cuffs are one of those things you have to earn," said Eric Beck, 33, who works in financial services in New York, and, like many men, only wears them with formal wear. "Buttoned cuffs seem more hardworking," said Mr. Beck. "I read an interview with a Supreme Court justice who said he only wore buttoned cuffs because he liked the modest tone."

YES | Practicality isn't everything. The very things about French cuffs and cuff links that alienate most men—the extra time and dexterity they demand—give others a pleasing sense of having put themselves together well.

Moreover, a man in a beautiful French-cuffed shirt can look better dressed with his jacket off than a barrel-cuffed fellow with his jacket on. (When the latter removes his jacket at work, he's just in his shirt-sleeves.) And with fewer men opting for French cuffs—shirtmaker Turnbull & Asser reports that sales of French-cuffed shirts have fallen to 25% of shirt sales from 50% in the mid-1990s—wearing them feels all the more special.

"I like cuff links," said Jonathan Summer, 35, a managing director at a New York investment firm who was wearing a purple gingham French-cuffed shirt with a sweater. "They're fun and interesting without being too showy, and I like the feeling of the extra weight on my arm." He wears French-cuffed shirts with suits and jeans alike, he said, and added that he's given a few to his 13-year-old son, who has yet to master getting the links in. "There's something very charming about him coming in with his arm out, and saying, 'Dad, can you help?' "

Mr. Summer did concede that he has been lured by the siren call of the practical barrel-cuffed shirt, and now wears the style half the time.

SOMETIMES | For the indecisive, there's the convertible cuff, which looks like a buttoned barrel, but has a second hidden buttonhole that can be worn with cuff links. Many shirt-makers offer this option, though few customers go for it. An exception: New York-based bespoke tailor Bindle & Keep reports that nearly 75% of its customers choose this "French-American" cuff.

[Disclosure: Randa is the largest producer of cuff links in North America]

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