Don't pay the most for the best. By Andy Zneimer
It is safe to say that London is internationally acknowledged to be the world's premier shirt capital. With one or two exceptions, such as Charvet in Paris, all the great shirtmakers are based here and it is to the British capital that connoisseurs flock to purchase the ultimate status symbol in shirts. For nigh on 100 years, Jermyn Street, SW1 - and its environs - has been the place for bespoke and off-the-peg shirt tailoring, and it will probably remain so until shirts go out of fashion.

Yet the fact remains that whilst anybody in their right mind would enjoy the pure luxury factor of a shirt fit for a king, not everybody can afford to make a regular trip to SW1. And that's why man in his infinite wisdom created the high street. Certainly, the true shirt scenario would not be complete without a mention of the increasingly competitive standards to be found there too.

Marks & Spencer, for instance, sells its comprehensive range of traditional City shirts at pounds 32.50. If you're looking for a comfortable shirt that's fabulous value for money and practically a classic, you need look no farther. They come with double cuffs and you can opt for stripes, checks or solids in 100 per cent cotton. Alternatively, the M&S superfine range of men's shirts retails at pounds 27 and is available with either single or double cuffs, with classic or cut-away collar. One interesting feature of this shirt is its differentiated tail length - the back being longer than the front. The senior selector for men's shirts, Gary Toyne, reports that "this season is all about colour." The shelves certainly make a visual feast, with emerald green, azure blue and red catching the eye.

C&A's latest shirt offering is in non-iron technology. The top 33 stores will be stocking these quality superfine cottons from European fabric mills in both solid and yarn-dyed patterns from March, retailing at pounds 20 each. There are three other shirt ranges from C&A at pounds 5, pounds 12 and pounds l7 each, the price depending mainly on the fabrics employed. These offer highly functional shirts, which handle cleanly and crisply and are eminently wearable for business or formal occasions.

However, if money is no object, and should you be looking to invest in a garment of the very finest quality, painstakingly constructed to last and made to measure to fit that unique shape that is you, there is really only a limited number of "off high-street" establishments to visit.

Peter Wilshere has been with New & Lingwood of SW1 for some 20 years. "We have a shop at `the school'," he says - Eton, that is - "which sells everything for the boys, including stockings. The old boys come here when they leave."

The New & Lingwood bespoke twofold cotton poplin shirt will set you back pounds 125, but is truly a hand-crafted work of art. (Off-the-peg shirts retail for between pounds 75 and pounds 79, accounting for roughly 75 per cent of sales). The term "twofold" means that two yarns are twisted together, lending additional strength and elasticity without adding bulk. There is a minimum order of four hand-cut shirts, which is common practice. Dukes and earls can have coronets hand-embroidered for a noble pounds 30.

There are pattern books that contain around 1,000 designs, with many classic stripes and checks, fabrics that include sumptuous Sea Island cotton quality, costly crepe silk (you can pay up to pounds 260), collars of every conceivable shape and a surprising range of colours. The current trend, Mr Wilshere informs me merrily, is for very conservative bengals and fine bengals (stripes), but for the spring somewhat "fancier" stripes will be on offer, and customers should look out for the brighter solids.

Twice a year, in March and October, the gentlemen of New & Lingwood head west to measure and fit small, medium, large and sometimes huge clients in New York, Washington and Boston. The shirts arrive a little later by courier, in return for a princely sum.

Hilditch and Key was established in London in 1899, with a branch in the rue de Rivoli, Paris, opening in 1925. With its own factory in Glenrothes, north of Edinburgh, Hilditch and Key received a Queen's Award for Export Achievement in 1993.

The list of "key customers" makes for interesting reading; it includes the Dukes of Marlborough and Kent, Ronnie Corbett, Jeremy Paxman and Mel Brooks, as well as a number of the crowned heads of Europe and a liberal smattering of government ministers. It is well known that all the shirts worn by Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel models on the catwalks are from Hilditch and Key.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the price of bespoke twofold cotton poplin shirts starts at pounds 125, and there is a minimum order of six. However, the superb off-the-peg range is more affordable, with plains at pounds 59.95 each, basic stripes at pounds 65 and the more exclusive fabrics weighing in at pounds 69.95 per shirt.

"Our shirts are simply the best money can buy," says the chairman, Michael Booth. His tip for spring/summer is for plains in strong colours, with lilac as the leading contender.

Harvie & Hudson, at 77 Jermyn Street, prefers not to reveal its client list. There's little to choose between them all, but perhaps this is the most conservative shirt shop of all. The business is run by the sons and grandsons of the original TG Harvie and GF Hudson. "There is a feeling at present for bright solids," states JW Harvie. Prices of made-to-measure shirts begin at pounds 115 for single cuffs and pounds 145 for double, with off-the- peg shirts costing pounds 60 and some of the finest silks priced at pounds 95. There are seven basic collar types but, should these not suffice, no shape is too much of a challenge. Harvie & Hudson, surprisingly, run a flourishing mail order business.

Simon Hobbs, a salesman at Turnbull & Asser (by appointment to the Prince of Wales), informs me that clients sometimes request "the most amazing and embarrassing shirts". He will not be cajoled into revealing any examples, but does mention that the Israeli PM will be dropping in shortly and that Gary Oldman is a regular. Here you must buy six bespoke shirts at pounds 100 each to open an account, with the most expensive priced at pounds 155. There is a range of 10 collar shapes, and fabrics available include Oxford, Zephyr, Turnbuline, Voile, Sea Island cotton quality and, perhaps the Rolls-Royce of them all, Zendeline. A Turnbull & Asser shirt is certainly not a fashion item - it all began in 1885, you see. They tend to be extremely practical garments.

The final bespoke tailor to look out for is Ozwald Boateng, 9 Vigo Street, W1; but compared to the others he is from another planet, being positively funky. He says that: "spring/ summer '97 is the time for a bit of adventure. The theme of the collection is Mission Impossible and my favourite look for the season is a sharply tailored suit with a shirt and tie, all in silver." What would the original Mr Harvie have made of all that? Boateng bespoke shirts start at pounds 135 (minimum order, three), with off-the-peg costing not much less.

However, if you're just starting out in life, and need to look the part without spending quite as much cash, fear not. There are plenty of high quality and affordable off-the-peg shirts out there that won't get you hot under the collar. The two key labels of repute to check out are Thomas Pink and TM Lewin, both of which are favoured by City whiz-kids.

Thomas Pink, owned by the Mullen brothers and possibly to be floated on the London Stock Exchange for some pounds l5m, currently has 15 UK outlets, with shops in New York and Dublin about to open. Thomas Pink shirts are made of fine, twofold Egyptian cotton poplin, have extra-long tails, a generous box cut, sleeves pleated into the cuffs and semi-cut-away collars, and at pounds 49.50 they are as good as you can get. The new Continental range begins at pounds 69 per shirt and features bold pinks, lilacs, yellows and mint greens, in Royal Oxford cloth and with a more pointed collar. Checks (unobtrusive ones are in), stripes and plains are all a part of the Pink repertoire.

TM Lewin will be 100 years old next year. There is something to be said for having made your own shirts for that long, and the company has a factory in Southend that continues the tradition admirably. Prices start at pounds 47.50 for a cotton poplin shirt, with the new Lewin collection, tailored from the very highest quality fabrics and weaves, at pounds 55 per shirt. Lewin shirts are known for their durability and comfort. They have a distinctly generous cut, a split back yoke, a long tail and double-stitched seams, and are available with the option of double or button cuffs. Removable collar stiffeners come as standard. Uniquely, TM Lewin offers four sleeve lengths and four collar sizes, with the full range of patterns and plains you would expect to find plus some surprises. In addition, the company has a flourishing mail order business. Once again, superlatives are in order.