The History of the Button-Down Collar

As fate would have it, your wardrobe probably owes a lot to the rhythmic, unbalancing trot-come-gallop of a bunch of long deceased horses somewhere outside of London. Hopefully this comes as something of surprise.

To clarify, I’m talking about my favourite item of clothing, the button-down collar shirt. Even the arrangement of words is pleasing. The well-hyphenated undulating syllables roll off the tongue with an understated finesse that’s entirely appropriate for a shirt that’s held iconic status for over 100 years.

The genesis of the modern button-down can be traced back to 1896, when John E. Brooks (of, you guessed it, Brooks Brothers) took in a polo match during a business trip to England. It wasn’t the sport that caught the eye of Brooks though, but a tiny, almost imperceptible adaptation to the players’ kit. The fin-de-siècle polo kit, being a fairly restrictive affair, included a formal shirt with a regular collar that would flap up into a player’s face as soon as his horse picked up speed. To combat this impediment, the players had taken to stitching small buttons onto their shirts, thus securing the collar in place but also slightly altering its shape.

Brooks took this innovation back to New York, exaggerated it to produce the glorious collar roll that we now recognise, and then launched the first Brooks Brothers button-down collar shirt, the defining product of their history. And that’s the thing about the button-down, despite its subtlety, it’s always been significant. Let us not forget that it’s been the totemic item of clothing for the Ivy Leaguers, the Mods, the Skinheads, the Two Tones, the Mods again, the early baggy days of Madchester, the football hooligans in their Ben Shermans, the Mods once more for good measure, and us now, whatever we are, the Workers and the Whenevers.

So if you’re shocked that your favourite shirt, the evergreen, epoch-transcending button-down, was spawned by polo – a sport undeniably played and watched by some of the worst people in the world – then take consolation in this one small fact: at least we got there before the Americans.