Style Defined: The Button-Down Shirt

The button-down collar is one of the cooler pieces of the menswear history puzzle as it’s path is clear and unquestionable – none of this ‘may have been invented sometime during the middle ages somewhere near or around Europe’ and whatnot.

Just as the look itself is firmly and unmistakably cemented in the men’s style lexicon, the origins are just as clear and iconic.

The button-down collar was originally called a ‘polo collar’ and was worn pretty exclusively by – yes, you guessed it – polo players (largely in England in the late 19th century).

While most men’s collars at the time were not fastened at the point with buttons, polo players found the non-fastened style to be cumbersome as it would flap in their faces while riding. At first, the button was merely a homemade remedy as polo players attached them to keep their collars out of their way.

mens button down shirts history

| CLASSICALLY STYLED | J.Crew blazer, Brooks Brothers Black Fleece button-down shirt | PHOTOGRAPHY | by Rob McIver Photo

Believe it or not, it was Brooks Brothers very own John Brooks who took note of this style maneuver and began offering button-down shirts to the general public in the family stores. In fact, Brooks Brothers button-down shirts still say ‘The Original Polo Shirt’ on the label today.

The Brooks Brothers influence landed the button-down collar solidly in the day-to-day rotation of men’s attire, but the look really became a distinct fashion move when the Italians (who else, right?) adopted it in the mid-1900s.

Specifically, style legend Gianni Agnelli was known for incorporating the button-down shirt into his personal uniform, opting to wear his unfastened for a look of instantly recognizable sprezzatura.

Today, button-down shirts are everywhere, from ill-fitting Men’s Warehouse business packs to tried-and-true prep classics from Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers, to modern fashion labels from Band of Outsiders to Mark McNairy to Thom Browne and many, many more.

Here’s some outfit inspiration from the HSS Style Guide, featuring button-down shirts of various types styled for a variety of situations – from dressed up to casual – and seasons.

1. Casual Business Traveler

mens button down shirts outfit ideas

2. Everyday Office Attire

mens button down shirts outfit ideas

3. Funked Up Suit

mens button down shirts outfit ideas

4. Coffee Date

mens button down shirts outfit ideas

5. Casual Weekend Layering

mens button down shirts outfit ideas

6. Rolled Up Summer Dapper

mens button down shirts outfit ideas

Thanks for reading.

Stylishly Yours,

Adam Lehman
He Spoke Style

Menswear history buff? Read more of our Style Defined series and explore the Glossary.

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Chime In

  • Chris

    I like button-down collars, but they’ve have now saturated the market (in the UK, at any rate) to the point where it can be hard to buy a casual shirt without a button-down collar. It’s become a bit repetitive. They’re also a prerequisite for one of my style pet hates – wearing a button-down collar shirt with the collars unbuttoned.

  • Andreas

    I heard that wearing a tie combined with a button-down shirt should be avoided. I read it in the german GQ. What do you think about it? On the pictures, you´ve combined it…I usually don´t. Regards from Germany, Andreas