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The Button-down: Bend it like Brooks Brothers

Updated: Mar 8

“Specialization is for insects.”




Robert A. Heinlein


That's certainly a thought-provoking statement coming from the writer of Starship Troopers, but what better could introduce a shirt that incarnates versatility at its best? After a decade of undivided reign for the cutaway, things recently seemed to go back to normal and the collar realms is shared more equally in beetween its different kingdoms. The button-down, sometimes called OCBD (Oxford Cloth Button Down, due to the fabric traditionally used for this shirts), is regaining popularity among today's crowd. And for a good reason. In an era that favors laid-back looks, even in professional environement, the Button Down shirt offers versatility in strictness and some comfort while maintaining an air of elegance. Whether in denim, flannel, linen, for rawness, or made of a more versatile Oxford, and without missing the dressed-up poplin, a well-crafted button-down can incarnate all layers from casual to refined. Granted with the right roll, it adds a subtle yet unmistakable touch of sophistication that will always elevates it beyond a regular shirt.

The button-down as we know it was most certainly produced in America. The frenchs actually calls it the "American Collar". But it's interesting to understand where this strange idea to sew buttons on a collar emanated from and who created this armonious roll design, a stylistic graal we refer to define now the quality of this shirt model. In other words, who is this John E. Brooks everyone talks about and why someone decided to put buttons on a shirt's collar in the first place?

Origins of the Button-Down: England Stolen Jewel?

The invention of sewing machines originated in England in 1790, but it was American companies like Fechheimer Brothers that pioneered their use for mass production by the 1850s. With Singer introducing the first electric version in 1889, American advancements in mass clothing production reached new heights, allowing Brooks Brothers to produce button-down shirts in large volumes.

The origins of button-down shirts trace back to 1869 in England. Polo players, bothered by their shirt collars flapping up in the wind and obstructing their vision, began attaching buttons to keep them secured during games.

John E. Brooks is credited with popularizing the button-down shirt as a fashion item. Inspired by a polo match he witnessed in England, he returned to his American company and promptly initiated their production, initially known as polo collar shirts.

The button-down shirt gained significant fashion status when it was embraced by Italians in the mid-1900s. Fashion icon Gianni Agnelli notably incorporated the button-down shirt into his signature style, often wearing it unbuttoned adding an air of sprezzatura.

In the post-war era, a sexual revolution paralleled the rise of second-wave feminism and the women's liberation movement. The button-down shirt emerged as a symbol of independence and a quest for gender equality when women began wearing men's dress shirts. Donning masculine attire signified a desire to be taken seriously both in the workplace and in society, echoing the sartorial shift towards equality and empowerment.

Each generation has adapted the button-down shirt keeping it up to date until now. Today, it remains a staple in any modern wardrobes.

The Styling Practice Over Time

Tennis players soon cottoned on to the same benefit polo players of the previous century had enjoyed. In addition to Brooks Brothers, brands like Arrow and J. Press also represented this East Coast rendition of an English aesthetic. Their primary clientele were university students, particularly at Princeton, who were the trendsetters of male style in the 1920s. Influenced by the youthful Prince of Wales, who embraced relaxed American clothing during his tours of the US in the early 1920s, these students adopted a style that blended sportswear with formal attire, popularizing what came to be known as the Ivy League look.

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 Brothers 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. Gianni Agnelli wore button-downs with his usual aplomb, famously wearing them with suits and ties without the points buttoned.

This history of the Button-Down collar is widely known, and there is almost unanimous agreement regarding the authenticity of its origins. Almost. Two authors, the Englishman James Darwen and Bernhard Roetzel from Germany, have sparked some controversy about these origins, on whether they were American or English.

« The real button-down collar was pioneered by American polo players to prevent the ends of the collar from flying back into their faces as they galloped gaily across the field. John Brooks, a name of English origin, of course, from Brooks Brothers, an astonishing oasis of good taste in the heart of New York, developed this style around 1900, thus redeeming a good part of the sartorial inelegance for which this young and bustling nation unfortunately became known. » 

James Darwen, Le Chic anglais, Hermé

« John Brooks, director of a tailoring house, allegedly noticed, during a polo match in England, that the collar points of shirts were buttoned onto the upper chest to prevent them from flapping in the face. Inspired by this example, he had button-down collar shirts made upon his return home. This legend may have been entirely fabricated and spread by the English to claim that this ingenious American invention is actually a copy of their original creation. Indeed, neither what is commonly referred today as a polo shirt nor the shirt worn by practitioners of this sport bear the slightest resemblance to the button-down collar model as we know it. » 

Bernhard Roetzel, Der Gentleman, Könemann

A.W. Bauer's Suggestions to Wear a Button-Down Shirt

To be right, the American collar must meet several criteria. It must be large enough – its points spaced far enough apart and its angle open enough for a tie knot to possibly fit inside. The drop-offs must form a wave, the famour roll we mentioned. To this end, the buttons will be slightly raised.

Few ready-to-wear models meet these strict specifications, making the bespoke create especially relevant for such model. However, the Brooks Brothers softrollcollar remains the benchmark. Ralph Lauren has tried its own model but never achieved, to my knowledge, the same right proportions.

If you want to wear your button-down collar shirt in a casual style, the size of the collar is not crucial but longer points are always the better option. For a more formal style, your suit and tie will appreciate a dose of generosity along the length of the collar points.

The tie knot will take up space without overdoing it and your shirt collar will discreetly hide its buttons under the edge of the lapels of your jacket. In terms of materials and patterns, as we have already mentioned in this article, the weave of your shirt will indicate the occasion on which it is worn. To be worn with a suit, the American collar shirt requires a minimum of sophistication. Choose a cotton, Oxford or poplin fabric. Regarding the patterns, the plain, striped or checked shirt will do the job perfectly. For a casual style, you are much freer: cotton in Oxford, flannel, even denim or linen in summer.

The button-down shirt is a pure menswear classic. It might be the easiest shirt anyone could wear and it's very likely you own at least one. But the dash of simplicity and yet the simple elegance it provides can be decline infinitely with the range of fine fabrics we selected for the occasion. You will recognise the high quality of a button-down shirt if, unbuttoned, the collar keeps a beautiful roll. This is the rare sign of an exclusive shirt and the only one you will keep wearing over the years as fashion changes but style remains. Just swing by A.W. Bauer at Brunnsgatan 4 to create your own bespoke version of this wardrobe classic.


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