French cuffs refer to cuffs on traditionally a man’s dress shirt that are longer and folded back over the wrist. Instead of being secured by buttons, the cuff is secured by cuff links and lends a dressy look. French cuffs were first developed in the 19th century, and were connected with wealthier folk. Up to that time, most commercially made shirts were sewn in one size only and usually featured a row of buttons, so people could attach the cuff at the appropriate length, and fold back any extra length. The desire to have fancier cufflinks attaching the shirt, and a more fitted shirt led to this style of cuff, probably first worn only by those who could afford cufflinks.
French cuffs greatly grew in popularity and have never gone out of style. They are now most commonly worn with dress business suits or three-piece suits, and with tuxedos. The popular style of wearing “bling” or flashy jewelry is made subtler by wearing shirts with French cuffs that are attached with diamond or other gemstone cufflinks. In fact, you can really make an individual fashion statement with your choice of cufflinks, which can vary from the very sedate to the extremely flashy.
In Europe, some men choose not to wear cufflinks with their French cuffs but instead use what are called monkey’s fists. These are usually made of thin silk rope that is elaborated tied to produce a round flat knot on the top of the cuff. In the US, cufflinks are usually preferred.
Women’s shirts may feature French cuffs too, though these are usually attached with a button rather than cufflinks. A women’s shirt style that became popular in the 2000s was the ¾ length sleeve with French cuffs. Instead of featuring an attachment at the bottom of the cuff, the cuffs were usually left unattached. Alternately, since the 1950s, women have worn a variant of French cuffs on shirts where the cuffs are sewn back. These cuffs don’t need to be folded back since they are already attached to the shirt. They evoke the men’s wear style, without the fuss of extra folding and the need for cufflinks.