Shirts have been a staple in my wardrobe since I gave up the dress at age eight. Today I probably wear a button-up shirt five days out of the week and own around forty of them. From oxfords, to flannels, to chambrays, I love them all.
I always thought a button-up and button-down shirt were the same thing. I would throw around the terms interchangeably, as I have noticed many others do. But once I got into the shirt business it seemed prudent to do some research and see where the terms came from and how they are defined.
Shirts first appeared in the 17th century where they were worn as undergarments to protect expensive waistcoats and blazers from sweat. The shirt became a mens wardrobe staple in the late 19th century, being worn as a formal garment underneath a suit. If you have ever seen Downton Abby then you know what I am referring to.
Button-up or button-front shirt refers to a garment with a collar and a full-length opening at the front, which is fastened using buttons. All shirts with buttons that close the entire front of the garment are technically button-ups.
But it was not until polo players in 19th century England needed a way to keep their collars from flapping in the wind, was the button-down born. It is a traditional collar with button hole slits on the points where buttons are used to keep the collar fastened in place. Because it originated on the polo fields of England, the button-down collar was first called a ‘polo collar’ and was worn almost exclusively by polo players.
It turns out the button-down made its way across the pond to America by way of Brooks Brothers, John Brooks. In 1896 he was invited to watch a polo match while visiting England. He was so enthralled by the button-down collar design that he brought it back to America and the button-down shirt became a classic mens wardrobe essential. Even today, Brooks Brothers button-down shirts still say ‘The Original Polo Shirt’ on the label.
The button-down shirt is often thought of as a casual shirt, whereas a shirt with a traditional collar without buttons is a more dressy fit. There is an ongoing debate among mens style fashionistas about whether the button-down collar can be worn with a tie or bow tie. It used to be the ultimate faux paux, but as fashion ebbs and flows, today it is considered a fashion statement. Other than it being a bit annoying to undo the buttons on the collar to put the tie around your neck, I think button-downs can be worn in whatever way you see fit.
At Kirrin Finch, we use the term button-up shirts, because it is all encompassing: all button-down shirts are button-ups, but not all button-ups are button-downs. We use button-down collars on our oxford and short-sleeve shirts. Both these shirt styles are more sporty, so pair well with the more casual button-down collar.
Regardless of the origins of the shirt and its original purpose, the button-up shirt remains a wardrobe staple for men and women alike across the world. You can dress it up with a suit and tie, or dress it down with jeans and sneakers. To get a new menswear-inspired button-up in your closet today, check out our shirt collection.