The Essential Button-Down: Where Style and Function Come Together

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By Roxy Rowton

While women have been rummaging through the closets of the men in their lives for generations, the button-down shirt is one of the most sensible and versatile garments ever borrowed from the guys. A quintessential icon of style and function, the button-down literally breaks down the fundamental paradox of modern female dressing: male fashions are considerably more practical and comfortable.

Women have donned tops and blouses throughout the chapters of fashion, but the appropriation of the button-down as an item in the female wardrobe is a relatively modern adaptation of a style leveling symbol. While the button-down of the past did little in the way of accentuating the female form, it was a force to be reckoned with as it represented the choice to dress comfortably and be at ease in one’s clothing.

Women’s fashion flirted with a feminine version of the modern gentlemen’s dress shirt when the Gibson Girl embraced the shirtwaist. Originally the shirtwaist was a blouse constructed from shirting fabric that featured a front button closure and close-fitted sleeves with turnover collar and cuffs. The Gibson Girl would change the face of female fashion by liberating women to dress for a more active lifestyle. When Hollywood’s leading actresses, such as Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn, began pairing the button-down with other garments nicked from the male wardrobe it was considered shocking, outrageous and an inversion of traditional gender roles.

In the late 1940s, menswear clothier Brooks Brothers noticed that the smallest sizes of the gentlemen’s pink oxford shirt were quickly disappearing from the shelves. The buying frenzy was attributed to the shirts’ desirability as a wardrobe essential and favorite of their female clientele. Because of the demand and popularity of the pink oxford, Brooks Brothers enlisted the collaboration of Vogue magazine. Together the duo created a tailored version of the pink oxford that honored the original men’s button down but was shaped to accentuate the female form. Vogue featured the pink oxford shirt in its August 1949 issue. The tailored female version of the pink oxford shirt was received with great fanfare and became an overnight success. It was unmistakable that women were yearning for the practical, comfortable clothes of their
brothers, boyfriends, and husbands.

While the button-down is still, of course, an essential component of the modern, feminine wardrobe, not all button-downs are created equal. Choosing the appropriate silhouette requires a bit of experimentation and a little knowledge of sartorial vernacular. A profusion of styles, colors, cuts, textures, tones and textiles make a visit to the haberdashery department an entry into a world of unexpected pleasure and discovery. The finest grades of cotton shirting, such as Supima, Sea Island and Egyptian, are showcased on the front tables or upper shelves of the haberdashery department.

The Essential Button-Down: Where style and function come together These button-downs get their superiority from the strength, uniformity, length and luster of extra-long cotton fibers. Nestled near to the finest grades of cotton shirts are the silks, possibly the most luxurious of the shirting fabrics.  While pinpoints and broadcloths are weaves rather than fibers, these are next on the shirting display shelves and tables. A preferred choice among professionals because of the smooth “hand” and sleek, crisp appearance, these wardrobe shirt essentials give a pulled-together, sensible attitude to any work-wear
outfit. Lower down on the status rung is wool shirting and the rougher, coarser weaves of the Oxford cloth. Linen and cotton batiste are great choices for warm-weather shirting, but tend to be sheerer and more prone to wrinkles.

Construction matters. Better grade button-downs are made of two-ply cotton. The finer the cotton fiber the higher the thread count, ranging from 80 per square inch up to 220 for an exceptional silky cotton shirting. High-quality button-downs are stitched using single-needle stitching. The seams have been sewn with only one needle, leaving a single row of visible stitches. Most ready-to-wear button-downs are constructed using a double-needle technique.

The personalities of a simple button-down are limitless and inexhaustible. A classic white cotton button-down makes a sensible and tailored statement. Restyle the button-down in a silk fabric, and it’s transformed into an attitude of poise and elegance. Refashion it from linen, and the button-down
embodies a sense of ease and leisure. Exaggerate the tailoring with generous seams, dropped shoulders, and a high-low hem, and the button-down relaxes to pair with leggings and jeans. Take away the sleeves altogether, add a stripe, and pop the collar, and you have the ideal button-down for warm-weather fun and divertissement. Construct the classic button-down in denim or chambray to style it up or down for a flattering feminine silhouette.

Today most women’s closets are stocked with one or more button-downs. Whatever their style and age, women remain fiercely loyal to the simplicity of the button-down. While every woman’s idea of the perfect button-down is uniquely hers, it is one of the most essential and versatile garments in her wardrobe. The button-down checks the box as her go-to and go-everywhere piece for endless styling options, toeing the
line between fashionable and indispensable, helping her dress smartly and appropriately, and forming the foundation of a functional and fashionable wardrobe.

Wardrobe and style consultant Roxy L. Rowton ( spends much of her workweek in the closet or the fitting room helping women look and feel their best. She has two-plus decades in the fashion, apparel and beauty industries.


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