Button-Down Collars. How and When to Wear Them

The button-down collar: 1896. John Brooks, Grandson of Henry Sands Books, founder of legendary American clothiers Brooks Brothers is watching a polo match.

As the story goes, it was the first polo match he’d been to and he was taken by a specific detail of the players clothing; shirt collar tips affixed to the shirt with buttons.

Many elements of clothing in a man’s wardrobe, (which most of us now think nothing of) came in to existence for practical reasons and for use on horseback. Such as a coat’s rear centre vent, allowing a rider greater freedom of movement, whilst simultaneously draping more cleanly across the horse. Or hacking pockets; slanted coat pockets, angled in such a way as to make access to them easier on horseback. So in the same vein, the invention of the button-down collar shares its history with horse riding. When rocketing across a field on a horse, polo stick in hand (correctly called a stick by the Brits, mallet by Americans) having your shirt collar flying up in your face is an unnecessary distraction. A practical solution was needed and a practical solution found, buttons to hold the collar in place.

John Brooks, impressed by the look and unique story behind this new design element, took the concept back to the US and a few short years later the world was introduced to “The Original Polo Shirt”, which we now know as the button-down.

History lesson complete, in a little over one hundred years the button-down shirt has become one of the most versatile items in the male wardrobe. Whilst suited to being worn with a tie (as long as the knot is small enough as there’s less room, where the tips meet, for a knot to sit cleanly without looking bulky), the button-down works best in less formal environments and particularly in warmer climates. It’s ideally suited to trousers and a jacket, making it well placed to take advantage of dress-down Friday’s. Traditionally made using an oxford weave (see below) it’s now frequently made from poplin, twill and linen. Over the years, the button-down has come to replace most other shirts for me on weekends or days when I don’t need to wear a suit and its wide range of application is makes it versatile.

The original Brooks Brothers button-down shirt
The original Brooks Brothers button-down shirt

It can be worn on its own with sleeves rolled up on a hot day, under a sport coat in mild temperatures, or layered under a knit and coat in winter (just wear it with a v-neck, as a crew neck tends to pull the tips together and make it look like a tall, buttoned-up collar. It’s one of the best options for shirting when not wearing a tie.

Additionally, a button-down collar will stay in place whether worn with a tie, under a coat, a knit or simply on its own.

The v-neck sweater and button-down collar perfectly framing Paul Newman's face
The v-neck sweater and button-down collar on Paul Newman
The collar remains in place, under a jacket, rather than collapsing in on itself
The collar remains in place, under a jacket, rather than collapsing in on itself or falling outside the jacket collar.

It has been patronised by just about every icon of men’s style since its inception, solidifying it as a timeless wardrobe staple.

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