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The Button-Down Collar Breakdown: What You Need To Know

Choosing a shirt to wear is not always a simple decision. You want to look professional but get lost in the button up vs button down debate, all the while asking yourself, just what is a button down shirt? 

Button Down Shirt Collar

The first time a man is faced with a collar that buttons to his shirt, he might be a bit confused. Buttons are meant to keep things in place, but it’s rare that a collar goes rogue, flying off of its own accord. Ties likewise don’t typically take to their heels, whipping away in a stiff breeze, and therefore securing them to your neck seems superfluous.

If this little tidbit of sartorial information has escaped you, you’re not alone. Here’s everything you’ll ever need to know about that brilliant button-down collar – sometimes called an Oxford collar – and how to wear it properly.

Introduction to the Button-Down Shirt

The Origin of Button Down Shirts

The eminently fashionable Brooks brothers were the first to bring the button-down shirt collar to the United States, but they didn’t invent it. Instead, they discovered something like it during polo matches in England. The gentlemen would latch down their collars during play so that they could remain fashionable, but not have the fabric flapping up in their face, obscuring their vision while they engaged in the manful sport of hitting a ball while riding a pony.

How It Was Used

Origins of Button Down Shirts

Known at first as “polo collar shirts” the button down shirt started off being worn as a standard dress shirt around the turn of the century. It went that way for a few decades, but then tennis players and other country club athletes realized that their sport could benefit from a collar that stayed where it was put, so they too could engage in the testosterone-fueled world of whacking a tiny ball over a net. Thus, it fell out of favor as a dress shirt and became one that was more casual in nature. It was still being worn by the elite, but during play rather than while engaging in business.

The Modern Button-Down Shirts

Modern Button Down Shirt Collar

When the sporting world realized that wearing semi-formal attire while playing a game wasn’t practical, and modern textiles took over, the button-down collar became the ultimate casual shirt. Like the sport jacket and jeans look or wearing boat shoes to a business luncheon, button-down collars have taken on a third life as dress shirts for work, when you don’t need to be dressed to the nines.

Providing a shirt-of-the-common-man aesthetic, wearing a button-down collar says you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and are in touch with the ordinary world. It can even provide those in dangerous jobs, like plainclothes detectives or those in the trades, a professional shirt that is also safer when wielding a firearm or working around dangerous equipment.

Related Reading: How to Wear the Oxford Cotton Button Down Shirt

How To Wear A Button-Down Shirt

Don’t assume that merely because it can be worn with a suit and tie that a button-down shirt will fly in every circumstance. You must learn when and how to make it work for you. Here’s the basic guide.

Going Pro

Basic Button Down Shirts

There’s a reason the term “white collar” is used to describe jobs, socio-economic positions, and even crime of an elite nature. A white-collar – or, in this day in age, a collar of a single color – is the mark of a person serious about their job and prizing their appearance. When form is more important than function and you’re dressing to dazzle, a button-down shirt collar might not carry enough weight. If you plan on pairing it with a full suit or a blazer and slacks, it should not bear much patterning.

In this case, you want it to have a solid color that matches well with your attire, and complements your tie. Sterling white buttons are important when wearing dress shirts of this type in a business setting since they’re going to be immediately apparent.

Patterns and Position

Following the notion that a white-collar is the mark of a pro, the easy rule of thumb is that the more patterning your shirt has, the more it tends to look like it’s made for toils, not boardroom battles with millions on the line. 

When choosing button down shirts for everyday business wear, you need to consider the look your shirt creates. Stick with single colors where possible, and if you do want to add a bit of flair, keep the color changes minimal. Avoid loud or aggressive patterns because they break the professional look, even if your collar is buttoned down.

If you want to wear something crazy, then keep it for the weekends or those special events where such attire is encouraged. 

Hidden Button-Downs

This is a helpful tip for those who like a collar that buttons, but still want to stay as natty as the next executive: Use a hidden button down. These have a fabric loop on the backside that holds the collar in place without the buttons sticking out. It’s the best of both worlds.

Tie Tricks

Wearing a button down collar shirt with a tie

A tie is practically a necessity if you’re going to wear a button-down collar, but it can be a hindrance as much as a help if you do it wrong.

If you’re attempting to attain a folksy charm, it’s fine to wear an earth tone tie with a heavily patterned shirt. Or, if you’re trying to fit in at the top shelf, better to stick to power colors and staid patterns that turn your basic robin’s egg chambray shirt into a dominant field made to highlight your tie, rather than drawing focus to your shirt.

Now, if you’re really cocky, get a set of flashy buttons that help set off your tie by flashing a little chrome at your throat. Done badly, it’s gaudy. Done right, it’s sartorial supremacy.

Going Tieless

Choosing to remove your tie when wearing a button-down collar is a dangerous proposition. Since these shirts are softer and generally made for mobility and movement, they tend to bunch and rumple the second you don’t keep them bound and gagged. For casual drinks, it’s fine to lose the tie. If you’re intentionally wearing this type of shirt sans ligature, adding in a vest and pocket square show that you’re opting to dress down, but are one Windsor knot away from being a force of nature.

Jacket Tactics

Button Down Collar Shirt and Jacket Combo

The casual nature of a shirt with this collar strikes the double-breasted suit from contention, as that speaks of power and control, an image that is spoiled by an informal neckband. Otherwise, sticking to the rules of basic jacket-shirt-tie color-matching will keep you on track.

Wearing Unbuttoned

The rule is to never, ever do this, but the right man can pull it off. Make it clear that you did it intentionally by dressing up everything else. Putting on an ascot or even a loosened tie says you know what’s happening at your neck, but you’re dropping pretenses…for now.

Button Up vs. Button Down Shirt: What’s the Difference?

This is a commonly asked question, but fortunately the answer is simple:

  • button up shirt simply refers to any shirt that has buttons all the way up and down the front. Most dress shirts fit this bill, while polo shirts don’t.
  • button down shirt specifically refers to shirts with collars that button down onto the lapels. Nearly all button downs also button up, but not all button-up shirts button down.

You can definitely see the confusion. Moreover, in modern parlance, people tend to use and understand the two terms interchangeably.

4 Good Button Up/Button Down Shirts

While the point of this article isn’t comparison shopping, we thought we’d give you a jumping-off point for conducting your own. You can check out our buyer’s guide to OCBDs, or just cop one of these outstanding shirts below. We’ve included two button downs and two button ups–just in case you came for the latter!

1. L’Estrange London | The All Day Shirt (Button Down)

L'Estrange London | The All Day Shirt (Button Down)Shop Now

No one has time for creases. What people do have time for is crease-resistant shirts that are silky smooth and itch-free. L’Estrange London’s The All-Day Shirt really can be worn all day without looking like you wore it all day. 

A slightly more premium price tag, but a dress shirt that you’ll pick over all others. Also available in a collarless variety, and a light blue variety.

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2. ISTO | Oxford Shirt Button Down

ISTO | Oxford ShirtShop Now

When building a wardrobe, versatility is key. ISTO understands that and therefore made their timeless Oxford Shirt. Portuguese tailors used heavy organic cotton but somehow made it feel breathable and lightweight when worn. 

The business’s attention to detail really shows on the form-fitting cuffs, perfectly picked out buttons, and flawless sewing. A classic fit with a slimmer design, suitable for all occasions and all seasons.

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3. Luca Faloni | Brushed Cotton Shirt (Button Up Shirt)

Luca Faloni Brushed Cotton Shirt (Button Up Shirt)Shop Now

Simple, stylish, and available in twelve colors. Sizes up to 4XL. Luca Faloni designed their Brushed Cotton Shirt with the finest Italian brushed cotton. They created it to be a luxury addition to any wardrobe. A classic year-round staple. 

The material is soft, silky, but breathable. It is a perfect dress shirt for the office or for weekends away. 

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4. Form & Thread | Grey Melange Essential Shirt (Button Up Shirt)

4. Form & Thread | Grey Melange Essential Shirt (Button Up Shirt)Shop Now

Sustainable and stylish. What more could you want? Form&Thread’s Grey Melange Essential Shirt is made with only the finest sustainable fabric. Organic cotton, recycled cotton, and PET bottles were woven together for a soft and versatile feel. 

Minimal features, a large french-front pocket, and corozo nut buttons supply the shirt with a modern look. Dress it up or down; the outfit possibilities are endless.

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Care and Feeding of Your Button-Down

Before and after wear, you need to do a few things differently with a button-down collar than you would with your standard dress shirt.

Easy on the Starch: You can starch the tips of the collar so they lay flat, but part of the point is to have a distinctive roll at the top. This requires keeping the fabric light and soft.

Unbutton Once: The only time those collar buttons should be undone is when you’re putting on your tie. During laundering, typical wear, or hanging in the closet, keep them snapped in and locked down.

Get Out The Iron: Smart fabrics have eliminated the need for much heavy ironing, with the exception of these shirts. While you want a nice roll at the collar, it can turn into a trainwreck if you let it contort however it wants. Crisp but not starched is the key.

Use The Right Buttons: Those buttons are keeping your outfit together, so they need to be sharp, they need to be the proper tiny size (not regular shirt buttons, mind you) and must match perfectly. If one collar button begins to change color or needs to be replaced, get a new set. Sleeve gauntlet buttons usually work for this purpose.

Conclusion

Men’s fashion might not be quite as daunting but there is certainly a lot to consider if you want to be regarded as a truly stylish man. Hopefully, this post as given you a better understanding of dress shirts, and in particular, the button down shirt and how it different from the button up shirt. Were there any shirts on this list that you already own? Maybe we convinced you enough to go out and add a few to your wardrobe?  

The comments are open, so don’t be shy. We love hearing from you. 

Tell us, are you a fan of the button down collar? Or are collared shirts a bit too formal for you? What other style tips do you think we ought to include? Leave us a comment below!