Primer’s Definitive Guide to Proper Sleeve Length

The proper sleeve length for outerwear, jackets, sweaters, dress shirts, and short sleeves.

When most men talk about the way their clothing fits, the emphasis tends to be on its circumference – that is, how tight or loose the fit is in comparison to the natural shape of the man’s body.

It’s obvious that this is a crucial aspect of proper fit and it rightfully deserves its position in the forefront of men’s minds. However, even if you dial in the fit in the chest, stomach, biceps, ankle, and any other circumference-based measurement on a man’s body, your clothing can still look sloppy if you don’t focus on proper lengths.

Today we’re going to be talking about sleeve lengths, and the ideal aesthetic and fit for each different type of sleeve you wear. For our purposes we’ll be focusing on five different areas – suits and sportcoats, overcoats, short-sleeved shirts, long-sleeved shirts, and sweaters.

Suits and Sportcoats

Your suit jackets and sportcoats should have their sleeves fall between a quarter of an inch and three-quarters of an inch above your shirt sleeves.

Anything longer is going to make you look like your suit is a size (or two) too big. Anything shorter and you’ll look like you shop in the boy’s department. It’s more conservative to show less cuff and currently more fashion forward to show more.

proper suit sleeve length

You’ll also want to factor in the proportions of your arms to the rest of your body. If you have long gorilla arms (like I do) then showing less cuff will help visually balance them out with the rest of your body. The opposite is true if you have disproportionately short arms.

Provided that your jacket and coat sleeves do not have functioning buttonholes, it is relatively cheap and quick to have a tailor alter them. So if they’re just a bit too short or too long, it’s still worth making the purchase and having them altered.

Overcoats

For winter coats, trench coats, overcoats, etc. you want the sleeves to be long enough that they just start creeping onto the back of your hand. This will ensure that they cover shirt cuffs and jacket sleeves while also providing enough coverage with gloves. I hate having exposed wrists in the winter and it’s easy to alleviate this by ensuring your jacket sleeves are long enough.

Proper overcoat sleeve length

Just like your suits and sportcoats – the sleeve length of your overcoats should be easily alterable as long as the sleeves are non-functioning. As a result, this is one of the first things you should look into when debating the purchase of a new overcoat.

Short-Sleeved Shirts

We’ll start with short-sleeved shirts because they’re the easiest. Irrespective of what you’re wearing (T-shirt, polo, casual button-up) if your shirt has short sleeves, they should end at the middle of your bicep. Longer sleeves look sloppy and shorter alternatives end up appearing effeminate.

proper short sleeve shirt length

Don’t be worried about the sleeve falling at your mid bicep if you don’t have one. Even the noodle-armed amongst us will look larger and more masculine by having the sleeves accentuate the natural size and length of your arms. Trying to hide any supposed deficiencies actually makes you look scrawnier.

Long Sleeved Shirts

Whether you’re wearing a casual shirt like a rugby or something more formal like a button up, you want the sleeves of your long-sleeved shirts to fall right where your wrist meets your hand.

There are two key factors in getting this proper fit – the length of the sleeve arm and the circumference of the cuff.

long sleeve shirt length

One of the more common complaints I hear is that a sleeve which is the correct length when the arms are at rest at a man’s side are too short when he puts his hands up and in front of him. Consequently, he’ll buy longer sleeves but they’ll end up covering his hand.

If you want to have the best of both worlds, it’s imperative that the sleeve arm is long enough to reach beyond the wrist and that the cuff circumference is tight enough that it will prevent the sleeve from falling onto the hand.

long sleeve dress shirt sleeve length

When measuring for custom shirts I will measure about a third of the way onto the back of the hand to make sure I have enough length for when the man’s arms are up in front of him. When measuring the cuff, unlike any other circumference measurement, I take the wrist measurement exactly (without a finger in there for breathing room), although I will give extra allowance on the man’s preferred watch hand.

Obviously custom is ideal in this regard, but you can make do with off-the-rack shirts by moving the cuff button to a position that closes it tightly enough.

Sweaters

For the purposes of this article we’re going to look at sweaters in two different families – layering pieces and stand-alone items.

Layering sweaters are usually of a lighter weight and are made for – you guessed it – layering. For most men this means things like V-necks and cardigans. Because these are layering pieces, they will look sloppy if they fall lower than the shirt sleeve of a button-up. The worst offense is when a man will wear the proper sleeve length in a suit jacket and have his sweater sleeves fall onto his hand. It takes the carefully designed intentionality of showing a little cuff and turns it into a perfect example of sloppy proportions.

sweater length

The ideal length of a layering sweater is just a hair longer than your jacket sleeves and still shorter than your button-ups. If you can’t accomplish that kind of precision, it’s best to have your sweaters fall shorter than the sportcoat or suit jacket – meaning people who see your wrists will only see the two layers.

Stand-alone sweaters are things like chunky cardigans, crew necks, and other bulky options. These are heavier in weight and typically of a more casual appearance. They’re meant to be worn on their own and not under a jacket or sportcoat.

chunky sweater sleeve length

Because these are designed to be the final layer in-and-of themselves, and because of their more casual nature, these should fall right at the edge of your wrist – with no other layer peeking out beneath. You still want to avoid having them fall all the way onto or over your hand, but you shouldn’t see any cuff or wrist beneath them.

While this may seem overly detailed or like I’m nitpicking, it’s an important element in getting the correct fit. The benefit of being aware of these details is that they really only come into play when purchasing a shirt, coat, jacket, or sweater. Once you know you’ve purchased the correct fit, you can throw any item on with anything else and not have to worry about how they correlate with each other.

Tanner Guzy runs a style blog and consulting business called Masculine Style. He believes in a uniquely masculine aesthetic and wants to help men learn to use their clothes to accomplish their goals. He lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and daughter.

  • Jared

    Timely article, I was just thinking of taking my peacoat to a tailor to have the sleeves shortened. Right now they come to about half way in between the base of my thumb and the knuckle. I suspected this was too long and your article confirms this. Any idea how much I should expect that to cost? There are no buttons, but it is wool and has a lining.

  • Sangfroid

    This is disappointing for a great blog. With the blazer and shirt lengths pictured above, when you go to shake someone’s hand, there will be 3 inches of wrist showing, thus giving the impression that all your shit is way too small — i.e. you’re wearing hand me downs, second hand shit, or generally don’t know how to dress yourself.

    • MasculineStyle

      That’s an easy assumption to make but also incorrect. Shirt sleeves should be long enough that – when they’re left unbuttoned – they cover more than half the hand. The reason they don’t is because of how tightly the cuff fits. The extra length of the sleeve means that there will be little-to-no movement on the wrist when the arms are raised.

      It’s also more accurate to measure length for sleeves and for pants by how they appear when a body is standing at rest. Too many men wear their sleeves too long or their pants with too much break simply because they’re overly paranoid of showing a little bit of wrist or ankle when their arms or legs are raised.

      • Sangfroid

        Thank you for the considerate and non-rude reply.

  • John

    What are your thoughts on wearing a watch with long sleeves, specifically dress shirts and sweaters?

    • MasculineStyle

      If you’re lucky enough to go custom, then you can have each wrist measured individually, giving you allowance on your watch cuff. You could also adopt some of the old Italian go-to-hell attitude and wear your watch on the outside of your cuff.

      But even with most off-the-rack shirt, unless you’re rocking a grandfather clock on your wrist, you should have enough room to wear a watch without it affecting (too much) how your cuffs sit.

      • JaredTheGeek

        I wear a grandfather clock sized watch and while its not over the cuff it pushes the cuff back when I wear a v-neck sweater. I use that as a I don’t care piece.

  • D

    I have a made to measure tweed sports jacket whose sleeve length is actually closer to that of the overcoat above. This is after having the tailor adjust it on me. Compared to my suit jacket, the fit overall is slightly looser with a lower armhole, wider sleeve diameter, slightly looser chest (I’m guessing because it is to accommodate a sweater underneath).

    I read somewhere that sport jackets are just overall more casual than suit jackets, so it is okay for there to be no cuffs showing and this looser fit (going back to the traditional purpose of the sport jacket being made for the sport of hunting). Any opinions?

  • John C. Smith

    Am I the only person a bit disgusted that there are people invested in something as trifling as sleeve length?

    • TJ

      Little details like sleeve length can make an okay look great. Like the article said, they are a part of fit, which many contend is the most important factor of an outfit.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      It just depends on personal preference/interest/style. You may care about some style things that others don’t.

    • Greg_S

      You know you’re on a style blog right?

    • belgand

      If, like me, the sleeves on your shirts are frequently too long and you constantly have to push them back or roll them up because they get in the way of your hands then, yeah, you care.

      Even simple things like having a sleeve that gets in the way of your watch and needs to be pushed back significantly can be annoying.

  • Jesús RoGuer

    It’s very usefull this information. I have been in a mistake for years!

  • Today

    Time to get rid of my short-sleeved shirts. I’ve been looking too effeminate.

  • Ian

    I got my first sportcoat tailored so now the sleeve length fits fine when my arms are at my side but as soon as I put my arms forward, or I have my arms on the desk my jacket sleeves pull back and reveal ~2”. What’s up with that and is this bad or expected?

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  • Steve

    Rules on rolling your sleeves up?

  • Ben

    This is amazing. Thank you, Tanner, for putting this together. As a tall guy I just started ordering Proper Cloth custom dress shirts and received the same advice about sleeve length and tighter cuffs. It’s life-changing advice. I really appreciate the time and effort that you put into this article.