The world of collared button-up shirts can be hard to navigate, especially if you’ve only worn t-shirts and hoodies for most of your life. Of the many different styles and materials and patterns that exist for collared shirts, there are two super-categories that you need to be aware of: collared shirts with buttons (“button-down collar”) and collared shirts without buttons (“point collar”).
Note: A shirt with buttons along the front is a button-up shirt whereas the collar on such a shirt could be a button-down collar. A shirt is buttoned up while a collar is buttoned down. While the technical term for a shirt with buttons is “button-up shirt,” it’s quite common for a shirt with a button collar to be called a button-down shirt. Otherwise, you’d say you’re wearing a button-up shirt with a button-down collar, which just sounds way too complex for a shirt.
Example of a button-down collar by Goodthreads:
Example of a point collar by Goodthreads:
Button-down collars were created in 1896 for polo players, who needed a way to keep their collars from flapping about as they rode on horses. Due to their origin in sports, button-down collars are less formal than point collars. They tend to be softer and have more of a roll than point collars, which are straight and often stiffened via the insertion of collar stays.
In other words, button-down collars are on the casual end of the style spectrum while point collars are on the business and formal end, with a small bit of overlap between.
Wearing a Button-Down Shirt
You can wear a button-down shirt without a tie, which would go well with other casual pieces like jeans, chinos, loafers, boat shoes, nicer sneakers, etc. Or you can dress it up with a tie, in which case you’d wear it with a blazer, sports jacket, chinos, trousers, wingtips, etc. But you don’t want to wear a button-down shirt with a formal suit outfit, because the visible collar buttons will mismatch the rest of the ensemble and stand out in a bad way.
Whether you wear a tie or not, you should always button the collar of a button-down shirt. This is the one and only “rule” for wearing button-down shirts. Leaving the collar unbuttoned will not turn it into a makeshift point collar for more formal occasions. Instead, it will look messy and uninformed.
You can also affect the level of formality in a button-down shirt by being mindful of its color and pattern. A shirt that’s a solid block of conservative blue might work for smart business attire; a shirt with tight stripes or a small gingham pattern might work for casual business attire; whereas a shirt with a large tartan or madras pattern is best for casual hangouts outside of business.
Note that there is a type of button-down shirt where the collar buttons are hidden. It’s fittingly called a “hidden button-down collar,” and instead of having holes in the collar points, you’ll find loops attached to the underside of the collar with the buttons also located under the collar. Just connect the loops to the buttons and your collar will stay buttoned down without any of the buttons being visible to onlookers. This kind of shirt straddles the casual/formal spectrum: they can be worn more formally than normal button-down collars, but the collars are usually softer than point collars so they might still look out of place in a suit.
Understanding Point Collars
One last thing: I’ve been referring to non-button-down collars as “point collars” throughout this article, but you should know that that’s not exactly correct.
A point collar is the most common type of buttonless collar, where each end of the collar comes down in a sharp point. Here’s a point collar example by Calvin Klein:
But there is also the spread collar, where each point of the collar points away and toward the side, which is better for certain face shapes. Here’s a spread collar example by Calvin Klein:
And there’s the cutaway collar as well, which looks like the collar points have been sliced off and is even rarer than point and spread collars. Here’s a cutaway collar example by Bar III:
We’ll have a separate guide on knowing which type of buttonless collar is best suited for your face shape. For now, just know that while button-down collars mostly take on the form of a point collar with button holes, there are other collar types out there beyond the point collar.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do some men leave the collar unbuttoned?
Remember, we mentioned the rule about never leaving a button-down collar unbuttoned? A newer trend and one that’s getting mixed reviews is leaving the collar unbuttoned for a more casual look. While you should never try to turn a button-down collar into a point collar, some men are pairing button-up shirts with button-down collars with shorts for a carefree look.
However, it’s a tricky look to pull off. If you do try it, wear it confidently so it doesn’t just look like you forgot to finish dressing.
Should the collar be buttoned if the shirt isn't fully buttoned?
If you’re going for a more casual look, you might leave the first few buttons of your button-up shirt undone. However, you should still button your button-down collar. This makes you look more composed, while still looking casual.
Are the rules for women's button-down collars the same as men?
Yes. You usually don’t see button-down collars quite as much for women as for men, but this collar style does exist on some business casual blouses for women. A good rule for everyone is to just button those two small collar buttons, no matter what else you’re wearing or what you’re doing. If you’re trying to come up with new ways to style a collared white shirt, try these ideas.
Can I use a standard shirt button to replace a missing collar button?
No. While it’s tempting and easy to just use an extra shirt button you have lying around, collar buttons are smaller. This is to appear less noticeable and elegant. Usually, button-up shirts come with an extra collar button and extra shirt button. Always use the appropriate collar button. If you don’t have an extra, shop for “collar buttons.” This may come in a shirt button set or separately.
Are the rules different for short-sleeved shirts?
A button-down collar can be found on both short and long-sleeved shirts. And yes, the rules remain the same. However, if you want to try the carefree style and leave the buttons undone, a short-sleeved collared shirt is far more likely to look good with the collar buttons undone versus a more formal looking long-sleeve shirt. The next question is how to wear a short-sleeve collared shirt.
Image credit: Pexels
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