Aspiration is nothing new.
The button-down shirt (of course it’s the collar that’s buttoned down) was developed over a century ago for polo players who needed to stop their collars flapping in the wind as they played. This was back when men of means (and certainly anyone grand enough to play polo) would wear bespoke shirts, but that didn’t stop John Brooks, of Brooks Brothers, adopting the style for the ready to wear shirts he offered his American customers.
This aspirational sales strategy was clearly successful, and by the time Wall Street was booming between the wars the shirts were worn by young bankers who preferred to wear soft-collars rather than the starched ones sported by their stuffy financier forebears. A generation later America was basking in the glow of post-World War II prosperity, the 1944 GI bill had put two million ex-soldiers through college, society was transformed and so were its dress codes. By the late Fifties the button-down shirt was a foundation stone for the halcyon days of collegiate style – the legendary photography book Take Ivy records a panoply of button-down shirts and Harris tweed jackets.
However, currents in the Atlantic Ocean flow both ways and Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli, who’s said to have first bought button-downs when he visited the US, popularised the shirts in Italy. Agnelli’s style, which was as much a function of the way he wore clothes as it was a function of the clothes themselves, remains a high watermark for masculine elegance. His habit of wearing button-down shirts (with collar buttons undone) underneath his Caraceni suits produced a look that genuinely exudes that much discussed virtue, sprezzatura. We note that Agnelli’s protégé, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, follows his mentor’s example by wearing button-down shirts with suits, but also that this remains a matter capable of upsetting the kind of men who feel that dressing should properly be a matter of observing regulations, rather than expressing one’s personality.
In recent years the button-down collar has both experienced a revival, as part of the previous decade’s resurgence of interest in Ivy Style, and been rendered largely redundant due to the overwhelming trend for shirts with tiny collars. We believe, however, that fashions may come and go, but the appeal of a well-proportioned, button-down collar will endure. The soft roll of the collar, on a shirt cut from a textured, hard-wearing fabric like oxford cotton, chambray or linen, emphasizes the essentially casual nature of a button-down shirt, and subtly echoes the shirt’s sporting origins.
Whether you choose to fasten the collar buttons or leave them undone, or you choose to wear button-downs with suit or save them for the weekend, is a matter of personal choice. The place that the button-down occupies in the history of style, however, is beyond doubt.