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.
Where It Comes From
The eminently fashionable brothers Brooks were the first to bring the button-down 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
Known at first as “polo collar shirts” the button down 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 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 a shirt 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.
How To Wear A Button-Down Collar
Don’t assume that merely because it can be worn with a suit and tie that a button-down collar will fly in every circumstance. You must learn when and how to make it work for you. Here’s the basic guide.
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 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 this type of shirt 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. Plaids and windowpane patterns shot through with multiple colors are fine for the weekend or for visiting the warehouse, but the more noise you have on your shirt, the less it’s considered part of the clothing nobility.
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.
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 earthtone tie with a heavily patterned shirt. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.