What is a Button Down Shirt and How to Wear It

what is button down shirt

A button-down shirt, a classic piece of attire, has played a significant role in the fashion world for decades. Its origins can be traced back to the late 19th century, with roots embedded deep into the polo fields of England.

Polo players, in an attempt to keep their shirt collars from flapping in the wind while they played, began buttoning them down. The look was soon adopted by Brooks Brothers, an American apparel company, which popularized the style and brought it to the masses.

This article will delve into the intricate details of what defines a button-down shirt, its history, and its impact on fashion trends over the years. We will also provide tips on how to style a button-down shirt, care instructions to maintain its longevity, and its role in contemporary fashion.

Whether you’re a fashion enthusiast or someone seeking guidance on how to wear a button-down shirt, this article promises to offer insightful knowledge about this timeless piece of clothing.

Defining a Button Down Shirt

A button-down shirt, also known as a button-up shirt, is a style of shirt that includes buttons running down the full length of the front. It’s a classic piece of clothing that can be worn in both formal and casual settings.

The distinguishing feature that separates a button-down shirt from other shirt types is the presence of an extra pair of buttons on the collar, which allows the collar to be fastened to the shirt, hence the term ‘button-down.’

Here are some defining features of a button-down shirt:

  1. Full-length Button Placket: Unlike pullover shirts or half-buttoned Henleys, a button-down shirt has a full-length button placket running from the collar to the bottom hem.
  2. Collar Buttons: The most distinctive feature is the small button on each side of the collar. These buttons fasten the collar to the shirt, preventing it from flapping or moving out of place.
  3. Cuffs: Button-down shirts typically have button cuffs at the end of each sleeve. Some may have French cuffs, which are folded back and closed with cufflinks rather than buttons.
  4. Variety of Materials: Button-down shirts can be made from a variety of materials, including cotton, linen, silk, and synthetic blends.
  5. Versatility: They can be long-sleeved for formal or colder occasions, or short-sleeved for a more casual look or warmer weather.
  6. Fit: These shirts come in a variety of fits, from slim and tailored to regular or relaxed.

History and Origin of the Button Down Shirt

The button-down shirt has a fascinating history that dates back to the late 19th century. Its origins are often credited to the game of polo, which was popular among the British gentry at the time. Polo players would fasten their collars with buttons to prevent them from flapping in the wind during the game. This practical solution to a problem soon became a fashionable trend.

John E. Brooks, an heir to the American apparel company Brooks Brothers, attended a polo match during a visit to England in 1896. He took note of the buttoned-down collars on the polo players’ shirts and was inspired to introduce this design to the company’s dress shirt line. The Brooks Brothers’ button-down shirt, often referred to as the ‘original Polo shirt,’ quickly became a hit in America, marking the beginning of the button-down shirt’s popularity.

Over the years, the button-down shirt has evolved and adapted to the changing trends and cultures. During the 1950s and 60s, it was a staple in the business world, typically worn with a suit and tie. In the 70s and 80s, the button-down shirt began appearing in more casual contexts, often paired with jeans or chinos for a relaxed look.

The style has also crossed cultural boundaries. From the classic American preppy style to Italian ‘sprezzatura’, the button-down shirt is a universal garment that transcends trends and borders. Today, it’s a versatile piece that can be dressed up or down, making it a wardrobe staple for people of all genders around the world.

The button-down shirt’s enduring popularity is a testament to its versatility, comfort, and timeless style. Whether worn for a formal occasion or a casual outing, the button-down shirt remains a classic symbol of elegance and sophistication.

Characteristics of a Button Down Shirt

Button-down shirts have several defining characteristics that make them a unique and versatile piece of clothing. Here are some of the key features:


The material used for button-down shirts can vary greatly, depending on the intended use and style of the shirt. Here are a few common materials:

  1. Cotton: This is the most common material used for button-down shirts. Cotton is breathable, durable, and easy to care for, making it ideal for both casual and formal shirts.
  2. Linen: Linen shirts are lightweight and breathable, making them perfect for warm weather or tropical climates.
  3. Silk: Silk button-down shirts are luxurious and soft, often used for dressier occasions.
  4. Synthetic Blends: Synthetic materials like polyester or rayon are often blended with natural fibers to create shirts that are wrinkle-resistant and easy to care for.

Design Elements

Button-down shirts have several common design elements:

  1. Collar: The distinguishing feature of a button-down shirt is the buttoned collar. Each side of the collar has a small button that fastens it to the shirt, preventing it from flapping or moving out of place.
  2. Buttons: A full row of buttons runs down the front of the shirt, allowing it to be opened and closed easily.
  3. Cuffs: Most button-down shirts have button cuffs at the end of each sleeve. Some dressier styles may have French cuffs, which fold back and are closed with cufflinks.

Styles and Cuts

Button-down shirts come in a variety of styles and cuts:

  1. Classic Fit: This is the traditional cut for a button-down shirt. It’s roomier in the chest and waist, providing a comfortable fit.
  2. Slim Fit: Slim fit shirts are narrower in the chest and waist, offering a more tailored look. They’re ideal for those who prefer a sleek, fitted silhouette.
  3. Short Sleeve: Short-sleeved button-down shirts are a casual style that’s perfect for warm weather.
  4. Long Sleeve: Long-sleeved button-down shirts can be worn in both formal and casual settings. They’re typically paired with a tie for formal occasions.
  5. Dress Shirts: These are typically made of finer materials and have a more formal appearance. They may feature elements like a spread collar or French cuffs.
  6. Casual Shirts: Casual button-down shirts often have a softer collar and are made from more relaxed materials like chambray or flannel.

How to Wear a Button Down Shirt

A button-down shirt is a versatile piece of clothing that can be styled in numerous ways. Here are some tips for wearing a button-down shirt, whether you’re aiming for a casual look, a formal style, or trying to flatter your body type.

Casual Style Tips

  1. Tied into a Crop Top: According to Byrdie, one of the easiest ways to style a button-down is to leave it unbuttoned and tie it into a crop top. Pair it with a silk slip skirt for a chic, effortless look.
  2. Cross and Tuck: Studio DIY suggests taking one side of the shirt (the one that is underneath when buttoned), crossing it to the other side of your body, and tucking it into your jeans.
  3. Knot with Jeans: PopSugar recommends knotting the shirt with jeans, particularly opting for a style with puff sleeves.

Formal Style Tips

  1. Paired with a Suit: For a classic formal look, wear your button-down shirt with a well-tailored suit. Add a silk tie for an extra touch of elegance.
  2. With a Pencil Skirt: A button-down shirt tucked into a pencil skirt creates a polished and professional outfit ideal for office settings.
  3. Under a Sweater: Layering a button-down shirt under a sweater offers a smart-casual look that’s appropriate for both work and social events.

Tips for Different Body Types

  1. Petite: Choose a slim fit shirt to avoid excess fabric. Tuck it into high-waisted pants or skirts to elongate the legs.
  2. Curvy: Opt for a shirt that’s tailored at the waist to highlight your curves. Avoid oversized styles that can add bulk.
  3. Tall: You can pull off longer, tunic-style shirts. Try wearing them over skinny jeans or leggings.

Pairing with Other Clothing Items

  1. With Denim: A button-down shirt paired with denim jeans is a timeless combination. It can be dressed up with heels or kept casual with flats or sneakers.
  2. Under a Dress: Layering a button-down shirt under a sleeveless dress can create a unique and stylish outfit.
  3. With Shorts: In warmer weather, pair a button-down shirt with shorts for a relaxed yet put-together look.

Caring for Your Button Down Shirt

Properly caring for your button-down shirt can extend its lifespan and keep it looking fresh and crisp. Here are some tips on washing, ironing, and storing your shirt.

Washing Instructions

  1. Check the Label: Always check the care label on your shirt before washing. It will provide specific instructions based on the material and construction of the shirt.
  2. Sorting: Sort your shirts by color to avoid color bleeding. Whites should be washed separately, while colors can be grouped together.
  3. Temperature: Generally, button-down shirts should be washed in cold or warm water to prevent shrinking or color fading.
  4. Detergent: Use a mild detergent to protect the fabric. Avoid using bleach unless necessary, as it can weaken the fibers over time.
  5. Machine vs Hand Wash: Delicate fabrics like silk may require hand washing or professional dry cleaning. Cotton shirts can usually be machine washed.
  6. Drying: Air-dry your shirts whenever possible to maintain the integrity of the fabric. If you must use a dryer, use a low-heat setting to minimize shrinkage.

Ironing Tips

  1. Check the Label: The care label will also indicate whether the shirt can be ironed and at what temperature.
  2. Inside Out: Iron your shirt inside out to protect the outer surface from potential scorch marks or shiny spots.
  3. Dampness: It’s easier to iron out wrinkles when the shirt is slightly damp. If your shirt is already dry, you can use a spray bottle to lightly mist it with water.
  4. Order: Start with the collar, then move to the yoke (the part of the shirt that covers the shoulders), followed by the sleeves, and finally the body of the shirt.

Storage Suggestions

  1. Hanging: Hang your shirts on sturdy hangers to maintain their shape. Make sure the top button is fastened to keep the collar in place.
  2. Folding: If space is limited, shirts can be folded. Be sure to button the shirt and smooth out any wrinkles before folding.
  3. Breathable Space: Avoid overcrowding your shirts. They need space to breathe and to prevent wrinkles.
  4. Away from Sunlight: Keep your shirts stored away from direct sunlight to avoid color fading.

The Role of Button Down Shirts in Fashion

Button-down shirts have played a significant role in fashion, serving as a go-to piece for various occasions due to their versatility and timeless appeal. They’ve had their iconic moments, current trends, and future predictions.

Iconic Moments in Fashion History

The button-down shirt has a rich history that traces back to practical needs connected to sporting endeavors. Over time, this versatile garment has evolved and adapted to fit into various fashion eras and trends.

According to The Awl, the button-down shirt is known as a men’s dress or “business” shirt, which has collars secured down to the front panel of the shirt.

Current Trends Involving Button-Down Shirts

Currently, the button-down shirt remains a staple in both casual and professional wardrobes. Stylists today recommend it as a great piece to mix and match, from building professional outfits to wearing it in more casual settings. Websites like Byrdie and The Fashionisto highlight the shirt’s adaptability for casual occasions, such as weekend brunches or outdoor concerts.

In terms of style, button-down shirts are now being worn in fresh ways, including being tied into a crop top or paired with high-waisted jeans or skirts. They also come in various materials and designs to cater to different tastes and occasions.

Future Predictions for the Style

While it’s hard to predict specific future trends, the timeless nature of the button-down shirt suggests it will continue to be a wardrobe staple. Its versatility and adaptability make it a prime candidate for continued reinvention and reinterpretation.

As fashion becomes more fluid and less bound by traditional norms, we can expect to see the button-down shirt styled in even more diverse ways. It’s likely that we’ll see continued innovation in terms of materials and designs, as well as new ways of pairing the shirt with other clothing items.


The button-down shirt has proven itself as a timeless and versatile piece in the world of fashion. Its journey from a practical garment for polo players to an essential item in both casual and formal wardrobes showcases its adaptability and enduring appeal.

Key points to remember:

  1. Casual and Formal Styling: Button-down shirts can be styled in numerous ways, whether you’re going for a relaxed look or a more formal ensemble. They can be tied into a crop top, paired with jeans or a suit, or layered under a sweater.
  2. Care Instructions: Proper care is crucial for maintaining the quality of your button-down shirt. This includes appropriate washing and ironing practices, as well as thoughtful storage.
  3. Fashion History and Trends: The button-down shirt has had several iconic moments in fashion history and continues to be a significant part of current trends. Future predictions suggest that this staple piece will continue to evolve and adapt to changing fashion norms.

In conclusion, the enduring popularity of the button-down shirt lies in its versatility. It’s a garment that can easily transition between different occasions, styles, and seasons, making it a valuable addition to any wardrobe. As fashion continues to evolve, we can expect the button-down shirt to remain a constant, continually reinventing itself while maintaining its classic charm and functionality.

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