Button-down the hatches

Button-down the hatches

Q. I am wondering about button-down shirts and confused about whether they are appropriate to wear for dress and business. I wear my button-downs for all business and dress occasions except for the most dressy ones, such as weddings, funerals, and black-tie events. Is this the right approach? Could you summarize your advice on this subject for me and for others who might also find it useful?

A. Button-down collars are the most casual of all the shirt collar styles. Whether a man wears a button-down or non-button-down as his usual way of dressing depends almost totally on his background, the occasion, and his personal preference (style). A man of the Old School, whose taste leans toward the conservative, generally chooses button-down collar shirts. The look suits his comfort zone; it is a matter of individual style, often going back to his heritage and where he went to school (or sometimes, to where he wants others to think he went to school). Several factors apply.

OCCASION — Button-down shirts may not be the ideal choice for some of the special occasions on a man’s calendar — not only weddings, funerals, and black-tie events, but also important meetings, dinners, and career-building presentations. Historically, these shirts were informal (actually sport) attire; their origin was in the collars that polo players wore “buttoned down” to keep the collar points from flying in their faces while on horseback. Certainly, clothing often does outgrow its beginnings (just as men wear a blazer even when they are not captaining their yachts), but still, a glimmer of their earlier incarnation tends to influence how the items are worn and perceived today.

FABRIC — Shirts made of cotton Oxford cloth, the slightly dressier pinpoint-Oxford cloth, and the smoother, even dressier broadcloth are usually made into conventional button-downs. You will also find button-down collars on other handsome shirting fabrics such as end-on-end weaves, tattersalls, hairline stripes, chambrays, and plaids. Note: The dressiest shirting fabrics usually do not come with button-down collars, and usually do have French cuffs.

DRESSING STYLE — Another important aspect is what else is being worn with the shirt. Most well-dressed men consider button-downs to be must-haves that go with sports coats and blazers, even if their usual style of dressing is more formal, that is, suits. Also, the cut of the jacket influences a man’s choice of shirt collar. Fashion-forward cuts, such as Armani- or other Italian-influenced designs, seem wrong with laid-back, preppy button-down shirts. And these days, when so many men are going tie-less, the open-at-the-neck button-down shirt works especially well; it stays neatly in place and adds a note of polish.

WORK ENVIRONMENT — An individual’s corporate culture is another factor that helps direct his collar choice. Academia and sales seem to cry out for casual button-downs, while investment banking and the glamour/fashion industries seem tailor-made for the more refined point-collars and spread-collars.

For the man who is flexible and willing to choose different collar styles for different events, I recommend having a few other collar options available for more formal events. Straight-points, spreads, and the hard-to-find tab-collars are all a step (or several steps) dressier and more debonair than the button-down, which the world seems to associate with one of several categories: preppy, casual, Ivy League, and “old money.” Not that any one of these is so bad, but it may not always be the image you wish to project.

Please send your men’s dress and grooming questions to MALE CALL: Lois.Fenton@prodigy.net

Categories: Male Call