Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

When You May Wear a Button-Down Shirt

"Button-down" is the most misused word in men's clothing. A button-down, you know, is a men's dress or "business" shirt which has collars that are each secured down to the front panel of the shirt by… a button! Shocking, I know. But we have become confused however with the button-front shirt, which nearly all men's office-type shirts are, as they have buttons as well, just down the front, not at the collar-tips, and also the popular phrase, "button-down culture," which technically means a culture of uniformity. (And when I say "dress shirt," I do not mean the shirt intended for use in formal evening wear, or what we would call black tie—what is also popularly referred to as the "tuxedo," which, please don't say tuxedo. I mean shirts that are not t-shirts, basically, my dudes.) So now that we are all very clear on what a button-down shirt is, we can talk about when it is acceptable for a man to wear it.

It's important to remember that the button-down was a very informal shirt when it was invented around 110 years ago! (To people like me, who did not have many adult businessmen around me growing up, I had no sense of the formality or lack of such in men's fashion, and so context helps.) Over time, it has become more formal than, say, the t-shirt, which only evolved into being shortly before the button-down, but was until recently pretty much considered "underwear."

And yet, still some important trappings of its informality remain. This is more true on the Eastern seaboard than in California, so these guidelines skew east. (As all things should!) Although I do understand in Los Angeles that you may literally dress in animal pelts and legwarmers to the office, and I've made my peace with that.

In general, in grown-up land, there are some pretty firm guidelines.

You may wear a button-down…

• On Fridays, with khakis.

• On your own free time, whilst running errands, etc.

• On a casual date.

• With a knit tie and perhaps a tie bar, in sort of an ironically nerdy way.

• Under a casual sweater.

• When you want to look somewhat preppy when out for fun, in summer, that kind of thing. (Ironically or not.)

• To go uptown to get stationery engraved. (I just said that to annoy you, really, and also to make sure I could still spell "stationery.")

— When you work in a very casual office, with no real dress code, where perhaps people wear t-shirts or sweatshirts to work, like, say for instance you work at 36 Cooper Square.

• When you are David Beckham.

You may not wear a button-down…

• With a suit—almost never ever. (This rule may be broken a bit by women? That's complicated though! And in a few specialty cases, that probably don't apply to you! So err on the side of safety and don't do it.)

• Coatless, in an office where ties are standard for men (and forward-thinking women).

• At a job interview.

• To a pitch meeting.

• To a wedding.

• In a coffin.

Questions? I did not think so.

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92 Comments / Post A Comment

HiredGoons (#603)

The only acceptable weave being Oxford; because otherwise, why are you even trying?

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Can I just never ever wear a shirt with buttons on the collar? That seems less complicated, and also less buttons.

(Fewer buttons.)

Mr. B (#10,093)

(Hyperlinks are back? Hooray!)

deepomega (#1,720)

-When you're worried you might hear something surprising and don't want your collar to just fly straight up.

BadUncle (#153)

typically, though, one's bow-tie spins rapidly, as well.

deepomega (#1,720)

Be sure to apply high strength monocle glue.

HiredGoons (#603)

and secure your dickey with lead fishing weights.

HereKitty (#2,713)

Very good advice, especially regarding wedding attire and "formal evening wear," the donning of which furnishes a good opportunity to say "dinner jacket." Or "le smoking," if you feel like getting punched in the throat.

BadUncle (#153)

I thought a dress shirt was a shirt that could be worn as a dress.

cherrispryte (#444)

nope, that's a shirtdress.

hockeymom (#143)

Not to be confused with a shirtwaist.

BadUncle (#153)

Does that augment or supplant a pantywaist?

davidwatts (#72)

I am wearing one right now 1) under a casual sweater, 2) in an office with no real dress code, 3) because I felt like looking a little preppy. Beautiful elucidation of the rules. Although I might add there's a certain air of specifically retro preppiness about button-down shirts it behooves one to keep in mind (my vintage store, for example, only has them in the "80s preppy shirts" section"). So, don't wear them with any outfit that's otherwise sleek or modern.

You sound dreamy!!!

KarenUhOh (#19)

Did you just say "knit tie"?

davidwatts (#72)

they're back, although I don't anticipate buying one. Racks of them at Am Appy. I just feel they're too difficult to actually wear on one's body for the course of an evening.

KarenUhOh (#19)

I guess they'd be fine, if you didn't feel like carrying your backscratcher.

gregorg (#30)

Funny, I totally remembered this 1996 Metropolitan Diary entry as being a knit tie.

Dear Diary:

Overheard on the elevator at Goldman, Sachs on a recent "dress-down Friday," a conversation between a longtime partner and a smartly attired young analyst.

Partner (sternly): "It's Friday. You're not supposed to be wearing a tie."

Analyst (crestfallen): "But it's not silk." THERESA M. POTTER

I also always remembered button-downs were for navy blazers, not suits, ever. But this is obviously not the time to assert my infallibility.

davidwatts (#72)

Although honestly I did just wear one to a funeral, with a tie and tie clip, under a blazer, and with giant glasses. I feel like I looked acceptable? So there's that.

Are you me? Is this a weird movie?

Tulletilsynet (#333)

It's been ages since I attended a giant-glasses funeral and honestly, I had almost forgotten about the "giant-glasses funeral" proviso of the Universal Button-Down Limitation Act.

roboloki (#1,724)

is it ever acceptable for a button-down to be worn with shorts.

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

Of course! Sleeves rolled up with patchwork madras Bermudas, boat shoes and a gin & tonic.

@SidAndFinancy well, button down shirts always go with gin & tonics.

IBentMyWookie (#133)

I feel like Choire and Balk are the blogging version of the characters in Twins, Balk being Devito, obvs.

KarenUhOh (#19)

I've always envisioned them as Margot Kidder in Sisters.

ejcsanfran (#489)

Goofus and Gallant?

gumplr (#66)

Yes, except maybe Twins was actually Radar and now we have moved on to Junior, with the The Awl being the baby and Cho being, I guess, Emma Thompson?

libelle (#9,013)

Don't get me started on "Black Tie" becoming a synonym for "ultra-formal" — I mean, what happened to "White Tie" formality?

Bittersweet (#765)

Now officially limited to grooms doing the right thing for evening weddings. And symphony orchestras.

This past week, I got an invitation to an event where the dress code was described as, no lie, "elegant casual." Which I believe is synonymous for "I didn't want to go to that thing anyway."

cherrispryte (#444)

Wait, as something of a Lady, I am confused. What are we then calling the sort of shirts worn with suits and in coffins and to job interviews? A button-front shirt? And what is the difference between that type of shirt and a button-down shirt? Just the buttons on the collar? Is this entire thing about the buttons on the collar?

Later tonight, I am going to shave my legs with my trusty Gilette razor and think about these things.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

You're not taking this seriously enough. This is serious.

ComradePsmith (#4,477)

I am wearing one under a V-Neck sweater, because I want to look like a suedehead today.

Matt (#26)

What if you wear one at a wedding as a specific "Fuck you" to the concept to marriage but nobody notices the subtly so you just get drunk and end up lost in the woods after the reception?

Matt (#26)

A friend wants to know.

Yawn (#4,506)

This is called "ironic usage" and will get you confused with a hipster and therefore punched in the throat, should anyone bother to notice.

Matt (#26)

Actually it was the face, but yes.

Jared (#1,227)

Why do you say "casual sweater"? Is there such a thing as a formal sweater with which one can only wear a button-front shirt, and never a button-down shirt? Because I think that when I wear a sweater I need to wear a button-down, lest my collars fly out willy nilly and I end up looking too much like Prince. I just can't pull that off.

Maybe I'm just making excuses but I think if you are wearing a tan twill or charcoal gray "box suit" or chinos and a blazer and are intentionally trying to look a bit like you are at the Holy Cross Winter Semiformal circa 1961 you can wear a thin tie with a button-down shirt. In fact, that just all looks so sporting or whatever that a real collar just looks like you borrowed one of dad's.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Next time, could you include some links illustrating words like "tan," "twill," and "Winter Semiformal"?

If you have to ask…

Tulletilsynet (#333)

… "button," "dad," …

atipofthehat (#797)

But the BEST time to wear them is when you want to keep the tips of your collar flat to your shirt.

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

They were invented for polo.

hman (#53)


Being from California, none of this makes any sense to me. Seriously, do people put this much thought into dressing? Who makes these rules, and why does anyone care to follow them? What difference does two tiny buttons make? Do people actual look down on others based on their tie-fabric preference? I had no idea heterosexual men actually consciously decide to be 'ironically nerdy' or that a material in and of itself could be 'ironic'. It all sounds so Victorian and pretentious. East Coast people need to relax or something. I guess I am not much of a fashion-oriented person. And yes, I do dress in animal pelts to go to work.

IBentMyWookie (#133)

Oh, go put on your Havaianas and cargo shorts and leave me alone.

HiredGoons (#603)

Ever read the part in Franny & Zooey about shining your shoes for the fat lady? That's why I dress respectably.

gygu (#10,925)

Agreed. Hey Awl! Not all of your readers are from NYC for Christ's sake. Other than these lousy "don't wear certain things because old white dudes said so" pieces, I love this site. Keep up the good work.

brad (#1,678)

california has defeated me. i cared, once. but being the only one in my office to wear a tie became almost as tiring as the constant questions as to who died and when was the service. i opined, once, to a colleague who was attempting to dress himself that, should he wish to keep his collar points from flitting askew he should check out stays. he looked at me with the casual blend of disgust and confusion that i now realize i evoke. i, also, spoke ill of button down collars. and cargo pants. and any shoe with less than 3 layers of leather as its sole. and knots other than a rakishly tied half windsor. and that made me an asshole, actually. california won.

BardCollege (#2,307)

Who's the heterosexual here?

pepper (#676)

We are Americans. A button-down shirt is an American thing, subtler than and preferable to, say, a George "Iceman" Gervin throwback jersey. Its loosely pleated sleeves and roomy contours allow a man to move, to breathe, to move easily from the boardroom to the ball field and back again.

It neither requires nor welcomes flimsy plastic collar stays, gaudy cufflinks or shiny fabrics. In a button-down, a man can roll up his sleeves and go to work if he needs to, and when it gets dirty or wrinkled, he can just toss it in the wash. (Real men iron.)

You can buy a button-down from the J. Press catalogue or down at the Brooks Brothers store in the mall. It'll fit well enough, and you don't have to, and should not, submit to the minestrations of the fussy, little men with the ice-cold fingers and the frayed tape measures. Not for us, the relentless taper of Charvet, the stretchy fabrics of Brioni or the constricting barrels of Saville Row. We are American men. And unless there is a bride waiting at the altar or a parent stretched out in the pine, button-down shirts are good enough for us.

Absolutely. It's what separates us from foreigners. Even more than freedom. Even more than a massive wall of nuclear missiles.

My father told me when I was a kid "shirts without button-down collars are tacky" and now I live abroad and every time I see the Prince of Wales on tv I think "your dad isn't as good as mine." I do, however, often not button the collars down. Which is, I understand, what Oliver Sack does. It also helps them flop out of a sweater neck and make me look even more like Prince.

GiovanniGF (#224)

This ruined post ruined my day. I now will go home and cut off the buttons on all my collars.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

No, you have to sew up the buttonholes, too.

Flaneur (#998)

THANK. YOU. I cannot tell you how tired I am of hearing people say "button-down shirt" when they mean button-front. Augh! Anyway, total agreement on the rules. I dress a little more formally Monday-Thursday than most people in my office, but it's a weird kind of office where you can get away with that pretty easily. So it's made-to-measure suits and simple silk ties and medium-spread-collar custom shirts with French cuffs. Then on Fridays I wear button-downs and khakis.

Anyway, with this and the tennis post, you are totally inside my mind today. If you do a post on the rollout schedule for the new FiOS DVR and channel guide, it's gonna get scary up in here.

hockeymom (#143)

Dear Choire,
Are you taking requests? Because I have questions about sweaters.
On the one hand, we have The Cosby.
On the other hand, we have The Sean Connery.
But most men are neither Bill, nor Sean.
What should they wear?
And more importantly, what can be purchased FOR them so they don't look like dorks?

Thank you. I'll take my answer off the air.

Flaneur (#998)

Those cotton Polo (and other brand) pullovers with the little zippers with leather pulls. My wife bought me three and I wore them incessantly on weekends all winter. And they were all over our country club as well. Relatively inexpensive, too.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I don't want to sound too inside-y, but garge and I had a long conversation about this very subject just the other day.

Miss u. <3 u

mishaps (#5,779)

I think that because so much of men's clothing is the exact same thing all of the time, they get really riled up and tweaky about the little differences.

They aren't just any animal pelts, thatnk you very much.

Nick Douglas (#7,095)

Fuck you, I wore flannel to my job interview.

City_Dater (#2,500)

Just knowing you're out there, trying to explain things like this to all the young savages who wear rubber shower shoes in the street, makes me feel better.

*pours drink*

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

Want something to cringe about? I buy thrift-store button front shirts and cut them down to be short sleeved.

scrooge (#2,697)

First no shorts and now no button-down with a suit? I think it's time, M. Sicha, that you considered sending in your resignation as Sartorial Correspondent.

Genghis Noid (#2,345)

Splendid. Everyone gets a Gentleman's C for referencing without attribution, Paul Fussell's CLASS and Birnbach's OFFICIAL PREPPY HANDBOOK.

Genghis Noid (#2,345)

Splendid. Everyone gets a Gentleman's C for referencing without attribution, Paul Fussell's CLASS and Birnbach's OFFICIAL PREPPY HANDBOOK.

Genghis Noid (#2,345)

Splendid. You're all a rakish mixture of schoolboy and corporate president. And everyone gets a gentleman's C for referencing without attribution, CLASS and THE OFFICIAL PREPPY HANDBOOK.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

And I award you the Dimwit's F for ability to use the edit function.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

And also for USING "REFERENCE" AS A {scarlet}FUCKING{/scarlet} VERB.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

It's kosher to use "reference" as a verb (and apparently people have been doing so since 1891), check Merriam-Webster

Tulletilsynet (#333)

This reason and evidence stuff really wears me down.

BardCollege (#2,307)

GOOD GOD, THAT SWEATER. It looks like a wooly alien ribcage invading his suit.

virginiallorca (#10,945)

Button down collared oxford cloth shirts are fine with suits. Excellent, actually. Blue is nice, tattersall, wonderful, blue stripes great, and blue check amazing. With a paisley tie. Or a Rooster with the tattersall.


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But really, did you get these rules from Tom Ford (embalmed in her Ando-designed mausoleum)?

Toby Bryce@twitter (#10,953)

These comments may already have been commented but:

1. I think the button-down / button-front / dress shirt confusion might exist only in your own mind. (Maybe bc I'm from the South, where button-downs have always been native, but it's never occurred to me.)

2. Unless I didn't read carefully (entirely possible) you are missing an important genre of button-down wearing. I.e. unbuttoned button-down collar. I believe somewhat Indie Rock in origin (see S. Malkmus) — half ironic half don't give a F. A good look.

P.s. I otherwise agree with everything you said, and am very glad that you have "surfaced" this important culto-fashional issue.

rparkes (#10,949)

Big Question: Can you wear a button-less collar shirt WITHOUT a tie?

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

This makes sense to me. Advice on what to wear in office, interview, wedding, funeral, etc. situations is certainly useful. What pisses me off is advice on what to wear on the streets of NYC, which would simply not be "streets of NYC" if we could predict what are we gonna see next. The only "advice" I have there is: just don't wear anything worn by large numbers of other people.

In California you can actually wear a button-down /T-shirt/ anywhere you please, but that would make you a "hipster," which is looked down upon in some circles. YMMV.

I mostly follow those rules, but sometimes I wear a button-down shirt without the collar buttoned-down. What's going on there?

KeithTalent (#2,014)

Was this post an elaborate fuck-you to David Brooks?

Was sent to this because I made a comment that you can't wear a button down to a sporting event.

Jeffrey Hunter (#191,033)

Really nicely put, but I imagine that you purposely reversed the When and When Not To just to be funny.

The underwear thing is a real windfall for Corporate America. About 50 years ago some shrewd guy figured out a way to sell a cheap garment – the T shirt for big bucks and as well have that garment used as a walking billboard branding something like sports equipment, beer, or Key West. All that was needed was some clever graphics and the inexpensive to manufacture T shirt became a higher priced garment with greater profit and with residual value. Tourism promoting, Rock and Roll concert souvenirs, and the challenge of cost effective marketing never looked back.

I agree with the West Coast – East Coast thing completely. I live on the West Coast but south of the border. I just cannot stomach those California women and the all too cool California dudes. Add to that the high cost of living in a place that is priced for sunshine, blue skies and being able to be as cool as Ken and Barbie 7-24. Man I really hate the boring blue skies to death and well I could go on – I will leave it at that. Nice job on the Dress Shit Piece.

Actually, you may wear a button down shirt with a suit, and sometimes it is recommended. When you are an elected official, or are running for office,you might want to wear a buttoned down collar as a subtle cue that you are in touch w/ blue collar or everyday people. Sometimes being too polished can may you look like a dick or seem untrustworthy.

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