The History of the Button-Down Shirt

How a wind-cheating innovation for polo players – the button-down shirt – became a modern gentleman’s staple.

Michael Caine wears a button-down shirt with an exaggerated collar roll. Photograph by Bill Ray/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty Images

Deriving from a practical need connected to sporting endeavour puts the button-down shirt in good company: the poacher's pocket, the cable-knit sweater and chukka boots being but three other examples. This particular menswear must-have’s narrative begins in the late 19th century, when an American named John E Brooks visited England and, while watching a polo match, noticed that the players’ collars – voluminous affairs, as dictated by fin-de-siècle fashion and the game’s regulations - were fastened down to their shirts to stop them flapping around during play and impairing their vision.

Impressed by the elegant arch, or ‘collar roll’, the buttons induced, he took the idea to his grandfather’s company back home, and in 1896, Brooks Brothers (the oldest men's clothier in America) introduced the style to the world of menswear (to this day, Brooks Brothers’ button-downs bear the proud statement, ‘The Original Polo Shirt’.)

Published

January 2022

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