I like the folks over at Bluffworks - they make excellent performance & travel wear that looks good enough for professional environements; i.e., they wouldn't be caught dead making zip-off travel pants. They just kicked off a new KickStarter campaign for a performance dress shirt, and sent one over so that I could check it out. I've both taken it on an extended trip and made a pretty fair attempt at trying to destroy it. This post details my experience with the Meridian Dress Shirt by Bluffworks.

Before we get going, if you're not interested in reading this entire post and just want to know whether or not the Bluffworks Meridian shirt is any good, the tl;dr answer is "yes, yes it is". It's a travel shirt that performs well for multiple days, is easy-to-clean and wrinkle-free, and has the fashion of a dress shirt.

Now, for the long story. First, a bit about travel and performance shirts. In my experience, a performance shirt is usually the same thing as a technical shirt; they are made of synthetics, dry quickly, breathe, and are generally suitable for intense physical activity. I've used technical shirts as travel shirts for a long time. Here's a variety of different performance / technical shirts I have used on various trips:

The technical shirt on the left is a blue gym / running shirt. The red one in the middle is what you would typically find advertised as a hiking / backpacking shirt. The one on the right is a rowing shirt. To give you a better idea of the materials, here is a close-up of each one:

Shirts like two on the left, the 'gym' shirt and 'hiking' shirt, are typically made from blends of polypropylene, polyester, nylon, and/or spandex. In the close-ups, you can see that the material is textured to increase the surface area of the shirts, thereby improving dry-time. The 'gym' shirts move better with your body, whereas 'hiking' shirts generally dry faster and need to be washed less. Shirts like the one on the right actually have cotton in them, but are blended with synthetics like polypropylene and spandex to provide some stretch. They are much warmer than the other two, but also breathe less and are much slower to dry.

Shirts like these last forever. Here is a picture of me wearing the shirt on the right on top of the shirt in the middle during a 60-day backpacking trip across Europe... in 2006. And by that point, they had already seen several years of service.

Travel shirts are a bit different. Many of them are mostly, if not entirely, Merino wool. They are soft, breathe well, adaptable to cool or warm weather, don't need to be washed as often, and are a bit more stylish. Now, 'stylish' is highly relative. You won't look like you're heading to the gym (as you do with the first three shirts I showed), but you'll still look like you're going camping or horseback riding. The downside is they aren't nearly as stretchy and don't move as well with your body. So they work fine for hiking, but I wouldn't recommend one for running, for example. Here's a picture of one I took to Thailand a couple of years ago with a close-up of the material:

When it comes to performance wear for travel, technicals get the job done, but are in no way appropriate for situations where you need to look even remotely "put-together" (e.g., a professional engagement, going to a theater show). Travel shirts are a bit better, but aren't suitable for anything requiring even "business casual" attire. A polo looks more professional than most travel shirts.

And, as you can tell from the pictures above, none of these options look anything remotely like a dress shirt. Indeed, had you asked me a couple of weeks ago, I would have said that performance dress shirt is something of an oxymoron; the intersection of performance shirts and dress shirts yields a null set.

If you've gotten this far, are tired of reading, and just want to know whether the Meridian performance shirt is any good - the answer is yes. Somewhat incredibly, the Meridian really does look like a dress shirt and perform like a travel shirt. If you'd like to read about the abuse I put the Meridian through to prepare this post, then read on.

Side Note: Stefan Loble (aka Bluffworks Actual) wrote an interesting blog post about Bluffworks' R&D process for designing new products. If you read it, you'll note that he spends much of the post discussing what goes into finding the right blend of materials; it really does make a huge difference.

The Meridian

I received a trial Meridian from Bluffworks about a week before I left on a 10-day combined business & leisure trip, so the timing was perfect. I wore the shirt heavily, in cool and hot weather, and for both professional and casual engagements. This is the 'Highland Grey Check' design:

Material

The first thing you're likely to notice when you handle the shirt is how lightweight the material is - especially compared to normal cotton button-downs. It's also extremely soft and breathes very well. And, true to Bluffwork's claims, it really does have a bit of stretch that allows it to move with your body. It really is a remarkably comfortable shirt, and is the first dress shirt I have ever owned that I would even consider wearing without an undershirt. The fabric is 98% polyester and 2% spandex - the latter being what gives it that bit of stretch and movement.

Style

Note: Bluffworks responded to the below paragraph about the fit, and said that because my shirt is an early sample it actually doesn't reflect the fit of the production shirts everyone else will receive.

So, first the things I didn't like about the shirt's style. I got the "Slim Fit" version, but have to say that it doesn't seem all that fitted. Normally, this probably wouldn't matter too much but because the material is so light it also doesn't retain shape and can't be starched. As a result, at least on me, it was prone to bunching up right above my belt. Not a deal-breaker by any means, but I obviously would have preferred it not do this. It's worth noting, though, that if the shirt did retain shape it probably wouldn't be wrinkle-free (more on that later). So, you're making a bit of a trade, here.

Now, a note about chest shirt pockets: I hate them. My disdain for chest pockets principally comes from the fact that they are almost always absurdly oversized on dress shirts. Go look at the dress shirts in your closet that have pockets - unless you wear a taller sized shirt, you might note that some of the chest pockets are practically half the size of the shirt's chest. This is because many manufacturers only make one size of pocket and sew it on to every shirt. So, if you have a smaller frame, like I do, you end up with a pocket that looks like it covers half your body. Once you notice it, you can't un-notice it.

Bluffworks, thankfully, did not make that mistake with the Meridian. Further, they actually designed the pocket such that the pattern on the material aligns almost perfectly with the pattern behind it; if you are looking at the shirt straight-on, it can actually be difficult to even realize a pocket is there. Look back up at the picture above - did you see the pocket on the left chest? Kudos to Bluffworks for attention-to-detail. I would have preferred a shirt without a pocket, but this one honestly doesn't bother me in the least.

Everything else is spot-on. The collar is well-designed, the shoulders fall off at the right spot, the sleeves look good down or rolled-up, and it even looks good with a tie. No matter how you slice it, the Meridian is a good-looking shirt.

Performance

A few years ago, the most strenuous way for me to stress clothing would be to take it backpacking or kayaking or whatever else. These days, my bar for rugged clothing is whether or not it can survive active & working fatherhood; which, I think, is a higher bar. I need something that can take the beating that parenthood dishes out, and still look good enough for me to wear on a professional trip.

I wore the Meridian for a couple of days starting with my travel day out to California. After a couple of days of use, I crumbled it into a ball and stuffed it into the bottom of my luggage. Eight days later, I pulled it out and wore it home. You never would have known (fun fact: the pants I'm wearing in this picture are actually the first Bluffworks product I ever reviewed):

When I got home, I blended a concoction of the following:

  • coffee - can pretty much stain anything
  • peanut butter - good luck getting the smell of PB out of something
  • milk - with a toddler, you are basically always covered in this
  • banana - nothing like mashed banana getting into fibers to ruin a good shirt

...and grabbed one of my son's squeezies, which is made from:

  • blueberries - again, they can stain anything
  • apple - sweet and sticky
  • yogurt - this stuff leaves nasty white stains on color clothing

I then put the shirt in the mud, dumped the blend of clothing-ruiners over it, and rolled it around a bit to make sure it got spread around. Then, just to be sure, I put it in a plastic bag and left it out in the sun to bake for a while:

I left it in there until I could clearly see, through the bag, that the mixture had soaked into the clothing. I then pulled it out and let it dry out a bit:

After I made sure to do as much damage as I could, I dropped it in a sink, rinsed it with water, hand-washed it with some powder soap, rinsed it again, and then threw it in the dryer. it's worth noting, by the way, that the care instructions specifically say not to dry-clean the shirt.

Twenty-five minutes later, I pulled it out of the dryer. It was bone-dry and looked brand new. There were no stains from the coffee or blueberries, no banana or yogurt in the fibers, and not even a hint of the smell of peanut butter. I put it back on and took my kid to the park.

You can tell we are in the middle of the 24-month sleep-regression by the bags under my eyes.

I can pretty confidently say that Bluffworks' claims about that the shirt is rugged, easy-to-clean and quick-to-dry, wrinkle-free, and wearable for multiple days in a row aren't exaggerations.

Packability

It compresses so well it fits into a quart-sized zip-lock bag:

I don't have much else to say, here.

What is it not great at?

After wearing it for a number of different activities, I feel like I have a good handle on its limits as a performance shirt and its limits as a dress shirt.

When it comes to performance wear, I would draw the line on activities that require lots of long-form or rapid movements. The Bluffworks founder, Stefan, wore it rock climbing, for example - I would probably choose to wear a different shirt. The collar on the Meridian has just enough structure that you may experience some friction during activities like these - especially if you are hot and/or wet.

In terms of dress wear, this shirt will easily take you through "business casual" settings. If you throw a tie or coat on (the Bluffworks Blazer, unsurprisingly, pairs very well), you can take it a step further. Past that, though, and I would move to starched dress shirts or suit-wear.

Conclusion

I think Bluffworks has a solid win, here. The Meridian does a great job of filling the gap between more traditional travel shirts and dress shirts, bringing many of the performance features of the former to something stylish enough to be in the same class as the latter.

It's a remarkably versatile shirt, and is the only shirt I own that could both endure the beating I gave it and still be appropriate at a professional engagement. Plus, its resilience to the messes of parenthood make it an easy choice for family trips. I suspect I'll be wearing it far more often than I wear any other 'travel' shirts I own.