Button-up vs. Button-down Shirts: What’s the Difference?
Button-up or button-down? That’s a question that many men find themselves asking. Don’t all shirts have buttons, after all? We know that fashion terminology can get confusing, even when you’re already skilled at elegant dressing, let alone when you’re first starting out. So, we coaxed our master tailors away from their work to give us a quick guide to all things button and shirt related.
Today, we’ll break down the difference between button-up and down shirts and clear up some conundrums around length, choice, and if it’s ever ok to leave a shirt untucked. So buckle (or button) up, and let’s dive deep into the world of shirt terminology, Oliver Wicks-style.
What is a Button-up Shirt?
When you picture a shirt, it’s likely a button-up shirt. Sometimes called dress shirts or button-front shirts (fashion-conscious men just love directional buttons, apparently), you’ll find a wealth of styles, colors, and patterns. It’s the most commonly worn style of men’s shirt worldwide. The key characteristic is the row of buttons running down the front of the shirt, used to close it.
Classically, it has a rectangular cut with several discrete pleats at the back of the shirt to allow for easy movement. Today, that boxy shape is often slimmed down to better follow the line of the body underneath it, with both modern cut and slim fit becoming more and more popular fit choices.
What you might not realize about this versatile shirt type, however, is that it marked an important advance in men’s fashion. Men have been wearing shirts for centuries—but these early shirts were pulled on over the head, rather like the Ancient Roman tunic. Because they were loose and baggy and often unstylish to wear, they typically required an outer garment to cover them. Think of anything from the Roman toga to Henry the Eighth’s doublet or the closed frock coats you see in Jane Austen adaptations (or Bridgerton, if you’d rather).
Once the Industrial Revolution made immense advances in how clothing was made, a sleek and sophisticated closure and more adept tailoring became possible—and the button-up shirt was born. We have historical evidence of a patent for this design from 1870. In turn, this allowed for a change in outer garments, too, birthing the modern suit.
Today, you’ll find button-up shirts in any color you can imagine, but the default standard for elegant menswear is still a crisp, starched white shirt. If anyone ever calls you dull for sticking to this tried-and-true classic, remind them that white became so dominant because it was a status symbol—you could stay clean and correctly launder the fussy color, so you obviously had the wealth to back it up!
What is a Button Down Shirt?
If that’s the button-up shirt, then what does a button-down shirt mean? You likely won’t believe how simple this answer is—but a button-down shirt is simply a type of button-up shirt. It looks the same but has buttons on the points of the collar as well as at the closure of the shirt. Meaning, of course, you can button down your shirt collar.
It’s a very simple design trick—but one that’s surprisingly new on the men’s fashion scene. Men who played polo were finding that their classic button-up shirt collars were flapping up into their faces as they played—not ideal on skittish horses and in intense sporting bouts. Originally, these gents would pin down their collars to stop this, but they wanted a better and neater solution, so the button-down shirt was invented.
This innovative collar style is said to have been pioneered by John Brooks for the American market, but it spread very quickly from there. This is why this shirt type is sometimes referred to as a polo collar, but that use has fallen a little out of favor after the invention of the polo neck t-shirt. It’s also sometimes called a sports collar, just to muddy the water some more. While this is a very “preppy” look, its association with athletics is also seen as a less formal alternative to the dress shirt.
Wearing a tie with a button-down shirt was once a massive fashion gaffe. Today, that rule has been relaxed a lot, and a button-down shirt with a tie will pass in many semi-formal environments. If the collar has buttons, ensure they are neat and secured.
Button-down shirts are most commonly favored in scenarios where the wearer wants to go without a tie, without the collar flapping around. Most gentlemen own at least one dress shirt that has a mind of its own in terms of getting the collar to sit correctly… are we right?
Note that at OW, you can choose classic or spread button-down collars while customizing your shirt(s).
Button-up vs. Button-down Shirts: Comparison
Now that you know the difference between button-down and button-up shirts, let’s dig into some more specifics. We already know the main difference between button-up vs. button-down shirts—one has collar point buttons, and one does not. Now, let’s break down when to wear which, how to style them, and some fashion dos and don'ts. Much of men’s fashion is built from these subtle differences, so any elegant man should know how and when to wear each.
As the collar difference is their stand-out feature, let’s start here. We’ve touched on the tie vs. no tie debate already. Classically, a button-up shirt needs a tie, although today, you will find a deliberate open neck used in casual settings - You might see business guys ditching the tie in the bar, but you can bet that during business hours, it was a “tie and collar buttoned” job. A button-down shirt will accommodate a tie in semi-formal environments, but it’s not something you’d favor if you’re trying to be very formal. .
While both have a place in your wardrobe, a button-down shirt is inappropriate for formal events. That’s anything from a job interview or meeting with the shareholders of your company right through to a black-tie or cocktail wedding/event. Despite the evergreen popularity of the classic Oxford shirt, button-down shirts are semi-formal at best.
When to Wear a Button-down vs. Button-up Shirt
As a stylish man, it is never inappropriate to wear a button-up shirt/dress shirt. You can play with formality levels in how you style it, but it will take you anywhere, any time, and you’ll look great. Even tuxedos and the most elegant custom-made suits call for a dress shirt. Conversely, you can open the collar and pair it with a relaxed sports coat for relaxed man-about-town vibes. You could even dress up a smart pair of black jeans for a relaxed business casual with the right shirt choice.
Conversely, button-down shirts will never look formal. You can dress them up with a blazer or a relaxed, casual suit, but choose your time and place appropriately. They will never be appropriate with a tuxedo or at formal events and in tough business environments. They could be perfect for a relaxed teaching environment or a day out in town. They are a versatile way to lend the right relaxed elegance to suit separates, too, and will stop you from looking too formal at casual daytime events.
Let’s throw a quick note in here. While plastic and resin buttons are the most common, even on quite expensive dress shirts, if you’re aiming for true sartorial elegance, it pays to invest in a quality dress shirt with something a little more sophisticated—namely horn or mother of pearl. Particularly for tuxedo shirts, but even for standard dress shirts, it’s a tiny detail that can greatly impact your look.
In particular, if you’ve invested in a made-to-measure or bespoke suit that’s perfectly fitted with expensive finishing touches like this, adding plastic buttons to your shirt can look gauche and mismatched.
Choosing a Shirt Cut and Collar
As they are fundamentally similar in style, both button-up and down shirts come in the same cuts—namely, the loose classic, fitted modern, and ultra-sleek slim fit. Which one you choose is more of a facet of the suit, event, and other aspects, and there’s no truly wrong answer here. It’s more about your taste and preferences and what looks best on your body. As a rule of thumb, however, looser classic shirts are more casual, slim fit is a trendy and modern option but not always appropriate, and you can’t go wrong with the fitted elegance of a modern cut.
There’s a wide variety of collar types in men’s shirts, too. We go into them in more detail here. Button-up shirts tend to have more variety in collar style than button-down (button-down is, in itself, a collar style, after all). Remember that the Oliver Wicks motto, however—the suit that fits you—also applies to your shirt! A well-fitted shirt is a must for any elegant man, even in a casual setting.
We know that fitting suits and shirts can be tricky. Did you know that we’ve made a nifty series of measurement videos to help you? All you need to do is sign up for a free Oliver Wicks account on the website (no purchase needed) to access these fantastic video tutorials and a ton of other fantastic menswear content that will ensure you always feel confident and dressed to impress.
Materials and Colors for Shirts
You will find both styles of these shirts in various fabrics. If you’re trying to elevate your personal style, it’s best to avoid cheaper manmade fabrics, like polyester. Not only do these not hang particularly well and often “look cheap,” but they also trap body odor and lead many men to sweat uncomfortably too. You can never go wrong with well-made cotton or linen. Typically, we would advise holding off on buying the more casual button-down shirts in high-end fabrics like silk blends, as these fabrics are much more appropriate for the formality of a true dress shirt. However, it is up to you and your budget, of course.
Typically, men lean toward classic pale colors—think white and pastels, or fine stripes, herringbones, and houndstooth—for dress shirts. While darker and bolder shirts have become more acceptable formally, especially as dye techniques have improved, so they no longer fade or leak dye on your top-end garments, they still lend an air of either casualness or trendiness, neither of which are right for formal dress.
What about workaday fabrics like denim and flannel? We’re pretty sure you already know the answer to this. While you will find many button-up designs in these sturdy and practical fabrics, that doesn’t elevate them to the formality of a dress shirt just on design alone. They will still lie very firmly in the casual camp and are best avoided for a sartorial dressing unless you have the confidence to style an avant-garde look around them—and even then, they would be best kept for non-formal functions and day wear.
Can You Wear Untucked Button Down Shirts?
This is a very fierce debate! Firstly, time for some real talk—an untucked shirt, outside of some very narrow circumstances, will always look sloppy—it looks like an untucked T-shirt. Fine if you’re popping to the grocery store, but not particularly appropriate for anywhere you want to look sophisticated. In general, it’s a look best left to very informal shirts—think Hawaiian or tunic-style shirts.
That said, you can wear some casual button-down shirts untucked if you really want to. However, make certain the bottom of the shirt is squared off. If there’s a “scoop” or “tail” to the hem, it is made to be tucked in. This is why button-up shirts untucked look so sloppy. How low should an untucked shirt hang? Ideally, midway down your fly or to the midpoint of your rear.
With a slim window for an untucked shirt to sit at the right length, it’s a surprisingly difficult casual look to pull off well. We’re in favor of tucking in unless you’re being very casual, and the length of the tail is ideal… as we say, that’s tricky to get right!
Now you know everything you need to know in the button-up vs. button-down debate. You can identify one easily, know when and how to wear it, and know how to choose the right fabric, cut, and color of shirt for any occasion. We’ve even touched on the great tucking debate!
Most readers of our content will be viewing from the perspective of formal menswear. If that’s you, then we’d recommend button-up, without collar buttons.
With your new-found shirt knowledge to power you, you’ll never feel lost in the world of elegant menswear again. If you still have any questions you’d like answered, however, the Oliver Wicks experts are always here to help—just reach out to us at email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you!