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How To Style Button-Down Collar Shirts

The sun is shining, birds are chirping and the temperature is rising. Summertime has always been a casual season due to trips down to the shore, long days at the golf course, and sweltering commutes. To beat the heat we need a reliable roster of comfortable and casual clothes to get us through the week. Putting a button-down collar on your shirts is an easy, classic way to defang a dress shirt and give it a more laid-back air. With this in mind, we’d like to discuss how to wear button-down collar shirts.

What Is A Button-Down Collar?

plaid custom shirt with button down collar
Pictured here is what we call a “Mitchell” buttondown, where the buttons are set about an inch above the standard placement. A truly custom look.

A button-down collar shirt is any dress or sport shirt whose collar attaches to the front panels of a shirt via buttons. It’s a decidedly more casual look than a standard spread collar and as such is less optimal on suits (more on this debatable point below).

It’s also one of the uniquely American contributions to menswear culture. Brooks Brothers started manufacturing them after their then-owner was inspired by a polo match on a visit to England. He saw the contestants’ collars fly up into their faces, and a light bulb went off in his head with a business idea that would become a huge category worldwide.

The phrase “button-down” is a little confusing in the menswear industry. Salespeople will refer to their dress shirts as “button-downs” because there are buttons going down the front. It’s not technically incorrect, but it’s good to be aware of.

How To Wear Button-Down Collar Shirts

black man in philadelphia wears custom dress shirt
Button-down collars work well on short sleeve shirts.

Button-down collar shirts truly shine when they’re dressed down relative to a suit. You can certainly throw one on with a pair of jeans and call it a day, but a button-down collar shirt works quite well with a sport coat and odd trouser combo too. They even pair nicely with a classic navy blazer. If you choose to wear a tie, a heavily textured tie like a knit will sync nicely with the “dressy but not too dressy” vibe of the shirt.

Though not 100% necessary, a “roll” on a button-down collar adds some built-in sprezzatura to your look. The collar points are cut intentionally long and soft, which allows them to elegantly curl when you button them. The look hearkens back to the old Brooks Brothers style – so much so that some clients request making shirts with a “Brooks Brothers roll.”

The shirts don’t work particularly well with double-breasted coats, which are a bit dressier than single-breasted ones. They’re just a little too casual to wear with double-breasted jackets, so we advise against it.

Can You Wear One With A Suit?

robert mueller III in button down collar
Note the roll on the points of Mr. Mueller’s button-down collar.

Again, button-down collar shirts are more casual than their spread collar cousins. The party line here at the shop is that button-downs are too casual to wear with suits, but there are a few prominent Americans who wear them regularly with suits. Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, III is the most recent example. The button-down is so much a part of his uniform, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to Google a picture of him with a standard collar. President George H.W. Bush would wear them occasionally as well. Why is this?

Our theory is that due to its origin with all-American Brooks Brothers, the button-down collar enjoys popularity among among WASP’s and others who dress in that preppy style (please note that we use the term “WASP” without any judgement or loaded meaning, it’s merely indicating a group). This seems to be particularly true of the Baby Boomer generation and gets even truer the closer you get to New England.

You can get away with a button-down collar if you’re wearing a more casual suit – light in color and made of either cotton or linen.

So can you wear one with a suit? Unless you aspire to an old money New England prep look, we wouldn’t.

Button-Downs At Henry A. Davidsen

There’s more than one style of button-down shirt, and we make them all here at Henry A Davidsen. Curious to explore the options? Give us a call at 215-310-0219 or email us at info@henrydavidsen.com to set up a time to look at what we can do. In the meantime, here are some other style and image articles:

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