The rake

The modern voice of classic elegance

StyleApril 2018

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.

captionMichael 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’.)

Tennis players soon cottoned on to the same benefit polo players of the previous century had enjoyed. In large part thanks to the perspicacity of Ukrainian immigrant maker Bernard Gantmacher, provider of shirts to the campus shop at Yale in the 1950s, the Ivy Leaguers soon followed, as part of a broader mode of East Coast nonchalance epitomised by John F. Kennedy. British youth cults ranging from the mods (who often opted for small-collared pieces with a button on the back of the collar) to the Madchester rock-rave fusionists via the Skinheads and the Two Tones, meanwhile, have popularised them back across The Pond where Brooks made his now historic observation.

Worn with a loosened tie, top button undone, the button-down exudes has a strong whiff of Rat Pack-style pickled nonchalance par excellence, while Chet Baker carried off Oxford cloth button-downs with short sleeves and narrow ties with dashing results. But it’s a man of more than a little rakish repute in the non-English speaking world who did the most to popularise them, according to Budd Shirtmakers’ Senior Cutter Darren Tiernan, who refers to a button-down as “the wardrobe staple, classic casual shirt collar”. “Gianni Agnelli wore button-downs with his usual aplomb, famously wearing them with suits and ties without the points buttoned,” he says. “He always knew how to get a look spot on.”

  • turnbull-and-asser-blue-royal-button-down-oxford-cotton-shirt
  • ign-joseph-white-button-down-collar-cotton-shirt
  • 100hands-burnt-orange-button-down-collar-irish-linen-shirt

Needless to say, Turnbull & Asser is among those likely to help you get your own look spot on, its button-down Oxford featuring a weave with a more substantial finish than a poplin fabric’s. Also suitable for those wanting to nail (or fasten) down button-down casual are the black, blue or white pieces from Ign. Joseph – a stunningly high-quality brand owned by luminary Ignatious Joseph – whose hand-sewn, non-fused collar, soft silhouette, one-button barrel cuffs and four-hole buttons all contribute to a look befitting a spring stroll through Capri’s Piazza Umberto.

100Hands – a brand named in deference to the number of artisan’s input it takes to create its wares – has proven that “understated flamboyance” is no oxymoron with its white cotton shirt featuring mother-of-pearl buttons, hand-finished buttonholes and side gussets finished with real gold; the brand’s Irish linen pieces in burnt orange and olive green will be a potent force in any relaxed summer ensemble.

Returning to the shores on which the button-down was invented, Chester Barrie’s navy denim button-down is boardroom friendly if paired with a smart worsted two-piece, but equally at home under tan or green checked patterns; similarly, Hackett’s latest collection – a layering connoisseur’s dream, incidentally – features one in rich blue which, like most of the collection, is all about ramping up the combo options for the summer. If you’ve caught the denim shirt bug, meanwhile – and you probably should have done at some point – consider Vanacore’s button-down in blue denim: a garment that’s distinctly loyal to the brand’s Neapolitan credentials.

In short, the not-so-humble shirt collar has undergone more permutations – spread, cutaway, point-tabbed, club, pinned, to name a few – than nearly any other garment part: but, perhaps paradoxically, when form emanates from a period-specific function, the results tend to be timeless.

  • ign-joseph-black-button-down-collar-cotton-shirt
  • chester-barrie-white-blue-stripe-button-down-collar-linen-shirt
  • turnbull-and-asser-white-royal-button-down-oxford-cotton-shirt

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