The Other Polo Shirt: The Story of the Button-Down Collar

Close-up of Brooks Brothers button-down shirt
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Often the most aesthetically pleasing details in clothes are born from practical considerations and the button-down collar ranks among the best of these. 

Its invention dates back to the turn of the twentieth century with a visit to England by an American named John Brooks (yes, that Brooks — he was the grandson of Henry Brooks, founder of America’s older clothier). During his visit, he took in a polo game and was fascinated by the shirts the players wore. While otherwise adhering perfectly to the strict formal dress codes of the day, riders did allow one small but eye-catching concession to practicality while in the saddle: their collars were all buttoned down to prevent them from flying up into their faces during play. Brooks, a man with an eye for details who equally knew a business opportunity when he saw one, promptly bought several of the shirts in question and shipped them back to America with the instruction that Brooks Brothers start putting buttoned-down collars in their line. To this day, their button-downs are called ‘polo shirts’.

Brooks Brothers window
Image credit: Frankenmedia / CC BY 2.0

For many, Brooks Brothers’ polo shirt remains the button-down gold standard, though its success has meant that for decades just about every shirtmaker has had its own version. The original was traditionally made in white or blue Oxford cloth, although pink, yellow and a variety of striped patterns have long been popular too. The eponymous collar — the minutest details and proportions of which are a cause célèbre among menswear obsessive — clocks in at precisely three-and-three-eighth inches, while the arms end in straightforward barrel cuffs.

Throughout its lifetime, the button-down shirt has had a wide range of associations, being viewed at various points as edgy, sexy, or conservative. What has remained relatively constant, however, is its popularity. It was a huge success for Brooks Brothers from when it first went on sale around 1900 and remains one of their best-selling items to this day. 

When it first arrived, the button-down’s soft, attached collar symbolised youth and vitality at a time when stiff, starchy, detached collars were still doing the rounds. Its newfound comfort and practicality heralded a more casual approach to dressing in America, with fashionable types like F. Scott Fitzgerald being among the early adopters. 

Francis Scott Fitzgerald wearing a tweed jacket and knit tie
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Image credit: Carl Van Vetchen / No known copyright restrictions

Considered a positively bohemian look at the time, it’s little surprise that the shirt would find its natural home among college students. Beginning in the years leading up to the Second World War, the button-down became one of the cornerstones of collegiate style in America, as much a prep staple as is khakis or penny loafers. 

The preppy look has long been associated with the Ivy League, and Brooks Brothers itself has a long-standing association with cultural elites (Winthrop Brooks, for example, the president of the company from 1935-45, was a member of the famed Yale singing society known as the Whiffenpoofs). It naturally followed that the collar most associated with the likes of Elis and Brooks men would come to connote the more conservative and well-to-do. In Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt’, for instance, the eponymous character’s identifying garment acts as a symbol of his old-world conservatism in contrast to the young narrator’s radical beliefs. 

Clark Gable and Hedy Lamarr 1940
Clark Gable wearing his signature shirt
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

As in so much of classic menswear, however, Hollywood added its own flavour to the mix. The famous scene in It Happened One Night (1934) where Clark Gable takes off his shirt to reveal a — *gasp* — bare chest famously caused the sale of undershirts to drop overnight. It also did wonders for the popularity of the very button-down he’d been wearing moments before. Gable was a fan of the shirt off-screen as well and wore it his entire life, giving a priceless bit of free advertising to Brooks Brothers along the way. 

Other silver-screen stars who liked a button-down include Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, and Frank Sinatra. Elsewhere in American culture, it was a favourite of President John F. Kennedy, Miles Davis, Chet Baker (who wore his with short sleeves), and Andy Warhol (who preferred his in white). In the rest of the world, it was a hit among British mods and skinheads, and, of course, with the famed Italian industrialist and menswear icon, Gianni Agnelli. Ever the style pioneer, Agnelli was the first to leave the points of his collar roguishly unbuttoned, a look that’s still popular among more adventurous dressers looking for a button-down look that isn’t quite so…buttoned down.

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