Oxford Cloth Button Down Shirt

The Oxford Cloth Button Down Shirt

The Oxford Cloth Button Down shirt (or OCBD) is one of those dress shirts that just isn’t a dress shirt. A sports shirt of sorts, the Oxford Cloth button down shirt can be used to add some casual tones to an otherwise formal outfit. Paired with a summer suit, alone with a tie or under a blazer, it can blend in with various outfits while creating a nonchalant attitude.

What Exactly Is an OCBD Shirt?

1. Soft Button Down Collar

As the name implies, it must have a soft button down collar without interlining. The proper look is achieved by a collar roll which requires the buttons to be placed closer to the collar than if they would lay straight. Many shirt manufacturers simply use a standard collar with interlining that is buttoned down, but that’s not what defines the look of a classic OCBD.

2. Oxford Cloth

It must be made of Oxford cloth. Oxford is a particular weave that is similar to a plain canvas weave with the exception that several yarns are woven in strands together, rather than individually.

3. Nothing else

Of course, great OCBDs feature a number of distinct details, but none of them is essential to qualify it as an OCBD. We’ll discuss quality hallmarks and details later in this guide.

Miles Davis in one of his trademark button downs

Miles Davis in one of his trademark button downs

The History of the Button Down

Today, many people mistake the button-down for a typical dress shirt, thinking if it buttons vertically, it must be a button down. It is not. In fact, the button down was created for use by polo players using a button on either flap of the collar to allow the wearer to secure polo shirt so the wind wouldn’t flap it in his face during a match. This is a significant part of the evolution of the polo shirt created by Polo players in India in the 1850s and then brought to England in the decade after that.

Oxford Cloth Button Down Shirt In the 50s

William F. Buckley Jr. in Oxford Cloth Button Down Shirt In the 50s

Brooks Brothers Invent the OCBD

On a trip across the pond to England, American haberdashery Brooks Brothers spotted this trend and decided it could become a cultural icon and menswear staple. They were right.

Introduced to the world in 1896 and growing in popularity soon after, the button down collar shirt became an instant hit in Hollywood and across the U.S. While many companies copied them, only Brooks Brothers managed to corner the industry with their newly developed dress shirt featuring button-down collars and oxford cloth. Initially worn with business suits and more formal apparel, the shirt managed to take on a more casual tone by the 1950s as America adopted the backyard barbecue trend.

Fred Astaire wearing an OCBD shirt casually

Fred Astaire wearing an OCBD shirt casually

The OCBD Becomes Casual

Now a focus of weekend get-togethers amongst friends, it was a classic wardrobe choice for men attending holiday parties, barbecues, and even good old-fashioned American sporting events. Young and old, it was a style adopted by everyone from varied demographics. The shirt could be found under a bespoke business suit on a high ranking executive or an auto repair salesman buying a pack of Lucky Strikes at the local Piggly Wiggly. It didn’t seem to matter who wore it or where, but it became a way for men to showcase their own style in a variety of ways and with a broad range of outfits.

One of the biggest benefits to the button down at the time — and even still today — was that because of its versatility, it allowed men to spend less money on shirts since it could be worn with so many ensembles. It was a true everyman’s shirt and one that came in basic colors but also some pretty great patterns and prints.

Casual style icons like Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire and Mr. Relaxation (Perry Como) all sported the button down on a regular basis. Worn under Como’s cardigans and Astaire’s double breasted suits, it was evident from Hollywood cinema that men could really do whatever they wanted with the shirt. Surprisingly, unlike many clothes, the popularity continued to grow, and the button down remains as popular today as it was back in the 1920s through 60s.

Gianni Agnelli in white Brooks Brothers OCBD with buttons undone

Gianni Agnelli in white Brooks Brothers OCBD with buttons undone

Style icons outside the U.S. such as Gianni Agnelli helped to popularize the OCBD outside of the States. The Avocatto would often wear his Brooks Brothers OCBDs with the watch on top of the cuff and the collar buttons undone.

Today, the shirts are made by just about every clothing brand that caters to men. From the classic sport shirts (as they’re now called) at Brooks Brothers to the inexpensive variants sold by Walmart and Target’s house brands, the button down seems to be sold just about everywhere — and for a good reason — because men everywhere are buying them.

Classic Brooks Brother Oxford Button Down Shirt

Classic Brooks Brother Oxford Button Down Shirt

Oxford Cloth Button Down Collar Shirts DOs and DON’Ts

Let’s not mince words. Just because Fred Astaire wore a button down under his most formal suits doesn’t mean you should. You’re not Fred Astaire.

Today, button downs are reserved for the casual, yet dapper gentleman. These are the rules. Obey them.

1. Do Not Wear BDs with Formal Wear

Tuxedos, morning coats, strollers, tailcoats… Call it what you will, the button down was not made for them. Wearing a button down with formal attire is about as silly as wearing white socks or sandals with it. The same goes for business suits. Leave the button down at home.

2. Do Not Wear Button Downs to Formal Workplaces

If you wear a suit to work, read above. The button down is a very informal dress shirt. It works splendidly with a blazer, a sports jacket or under a sweater, but it must never be worn with anything more formal than that. If you work in a very casual office environment, feel free to wear one. But only if your office celebrates casual Friday on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as well.

A Gant checked OCBD is a perfect pair with denim

A checked OCBD is a perfect pair with denim

3. Do Not Wear Short Sleeved Button Downs in Summer

Many look at the button down and assume the short sleeves are OK, but in fact short sleeved shirts with a button down collar just look odd. Rather than a short sleeved shirt, either wear a long-sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up or a polo shirt with short sleeves — but not a button down collar shirt with short sleeves.

4. Do Wear Button Downs on the Weekend

The weekends were invented for button downs. Or maybe it was the other way around? Either way, weekends and button downs go together like gin and limes. Unless you’re attending a formal event, the button down can and should be your go-to casual shirt during the day.

An OCBD can be the epitome of preppy with GTH pants, a sweater and boatshoes

An OCBD can be the epitome of preppy with GTH pants, a sweater, and boatshoes

5. Do Not Wear Button Downs to Interviews

Many people think that a great idea for an interview at a casual office job is to wear a button down, since it’s technically still a dress shirt and yet doesn’t give off the same formal undertones as the standard classic or semi-spread collar broadcloth shirt, because Oxford is a more casual fabric. While there may be offices where you can show up in an Oxford shirt, we suggest a poplin or broadcloth shirt instead. To learn more about that very topic, check out What To Wear To An Interview.

What to Look for in a Button Down

There are so many button downs available today made of different fabrics, ranging from linen and cotton to polyester blends — but an authentic OCDB has a few details you should look for:

The button down is a perfect shirt for the everyman

The button down shirt with a short collar that lays flat – not a real OCBD shirt

1. Opt For A Soft Roll Collar

Most shirt companies today offer a fused collar with interlining that is a bit stiffer. If they add a button down collar option, the collar usually lays flat, whereas the original has an S collar curl, which is achieved by making the collar longer. Moreover, the original OCBD collar had no interlining and was soft. Therefore, anything but a soft, S-curled button down collar cannot be called a OCBD. To find out who still makes a true soft, rolled collar today, read on!

Paul Newman in a classic white button down

Paul Newman in a classic white OCBD

2. Don’t Be Afraid to Buy Vintage

Some of the very best OCBDs are actually from the 1960s. Quality was more revered by the general public and most companies at the time weren’t as prone to taking shortcuts to lower costs. If you can find a classic Brooks Brothers button down that’s in good shape, I would urge you to buy it. Since they’re so popular, I also recommend asking family or friends if they have any they no longer wear. As a bonus, you’ll spend a lot less money.

3. You Get What You Pay For

Unless you’re buying vintage, to a certain extent, you’re really going to get what you pay for. I assume this goes without saying but avoid buying your button downs at the bargain bin stores like Walmart. The quality is going to be horrendous. Rather than spending $25 on a poorly made button down that you’ll have to replace in a year, double your budget and buy a quality shirt. Granted it will cost a little more, but you’re going to have a shirt that will last years if not decades. The oxford cloth button down is an American style staple. It’s been in style since it first came out, and chances are it’s a trend that’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

4. Stick with 100% Cotton. Avoid the Poly-Blends.

Cotton, linens, even silk are ones worth looking at. Unfortunately, most of the button downs sold today are a blend of materials primarily backed by polyester. There’s a reason that Brooks Brothers uses cotton as their go-to fabric for the OCBD, and it’s because it lasts, it feels great, and it looks fantastic.

Box Pleat in the back - hallmark of a OCBD

Box Pleat in the back – hallmark of a OCBD

5. Box Pleat

Traditional OCBD shirts feature a box pleat in the middle for extra movement.  Some shirts may have no pleats or side pleats etc. but the original has a box pleat in the middle.

6. Cuffs Should be Casual

Many men love the idea of wearing French cuff shirts and, truth be told, most of my dress shirts are French or single cuff. However, when it comes to the button down, let’s not forget that this is a sports shirt that should remain far more casual than your formal shirts. Therefore, we recommend sticking with the standard barrel button cuff. Keep it classic. On the chance you do end up with a rare French cuff OCBD, at least wear some more whimsical cufflinks rather than elegant ones. If you’re going to the races, try and find ones shaped like thoroughbreds. For a night at the country club, focus on golf club cufflinks. Pairing casual cufflinks with a more formal cuff is one way to remind yourself and others that the button down is all about the weekend and the weekend is all about fun.

Traditionally, the cuff was soft without interlining, and while that is comfortable it is important that your shirt fits tightly on your wrist, otherwise you will end up with wrinkles on your cuff.

7. Go with Long Sleeves

Finally, the OCBD should always have long sleeves. They work splendidly with chinos, denim jeans or even GTH (go-to-hell) pants. On a hot day, you can roll up your shirt sleeves — otherwise they should be long. Some companies also sell short sleeved oxford cloth button down shirts, but if you want short sleeves, we suggest you look into popover shirts or polo shirts, which look better for summer wear than short sleeved OCBDs. You can always roll up your shirt sleeves.

A beautiful OCBD by Turnbull and Asser

A OCBD by Turnbull and Asser made of a fine cloth

What Oxford Cloth Button Down Shirts Should You Buy?

To list all of the clothing companies and designers that currently make button downs would be close to impossible. Everyone from Brooks Brothers, J.Press and J.Crew make them all the way down to the bargain bin brands from Walmart, Costco, and Target. However, it has become very difficult to find the traditional OCBD shirt with soft rolled collar and hard-wearing Oxford cotton cloth. Traditionally, Brooks Brothers made probably the most classic ones and over the years, they have changed their style and modernized it. But if you want an old-school, heavy, hard-wearing, full cut Oxford shirt, you are in luck.

Traditional OCBD Shirt Comes From Mercer & Sons

The small company Mercer & Sons from Bozeman, Montana still makes the original Oxford Cloth Button Down Shirt. Run by a husband and wife team, David and Serena use a hard wearing, stiff 100% cotton oxford cloth that softens over time. They provided us with two shirts with a 3 7/16 soft-roll button down collar and barrel cuffs. The important part is that these shirts are without any interlining, thus giving you a soft roll at the collar, and wrinkles in the cuff if they don’t fit tightly enough. By default, they just come with one plastic button without a shank. I suggest you cut it off and make it as tight as necessary. Don’t forget what arm you wear your watch on.

Unlike the current zeitgeist, these shirts are not fitted but cut very full. The armholes are not too big though — just the way the original OCBD was. As they are made to order, you simply pick the fabric and provide them with your collar size and sleeve length.

Then you can choose from the regular body or you can size down the body up to 2 sizes, which slims down the shirt by 2″ / 5cm or 4″ / 10cm respectively. However, it also decreases the shoulder width. So if you have wide shoulders, you may be better off with darts.

The seams are all single needle machine sewn, with a high stitch density, and they seem durable. However, the buttons are just plastic without the shank, the buttonholes have a high stitch density as well, but they are not super clean. The shirts are cut long in the front and the back and short on the side. That way they should not come untucked.

A casual New York outfit with an OCBD

A casual New York outfit with an OCBD

Workmanship & Fabric Selection

The Mercer & Sons workmanship is solid and the classic oxford fabric is extremely hard-wearing and the look and feel are old-school — but so is the order process. You can also choose from tattersall fabrics for fall, madras for summer, fine broadcloths etc. but the real OCBDs are made of that hard wearing Oxford cloth, which they offer in 9 colors. You can either send an email with your order, call in or send an order form but there is no proper online shop!

So if you want an original OCBD shirt the way Brooks Brothers used to make them in the 1940s and 1950s, and you don’t mind an old school way to order, Mercer & Sons is your best bet. If you like a slim fit, you should seek out a custom shirt maker instead, yet bear in mind that the authentic oxford cloth is not just very hard wearing but also hard to come by. Make sure your shirtmaker understands what kind of oxford cloth you want.

The Basics - blue and white oxford fabric

The Basics – blue and white oxford fabric

Start With The Basics

While the patterned button down shirts are certainly fun to wear, you will likely not be able to combine them as easily as plain white, blue and salmon colored shirts. Therefore, it pays to start with the basic OCBD shirt in white and in blue. Once you have those covered, think about some solid pastels, or fine stripes. Once you’ve developed a bit of a collection, you can get colors like grey, purple, khaki or green, orange etc, or opt for bolder bengal stripes.

Mercer and Sons Button Down collar with S-curve

Mercer and Sons Button Down collar with S-curve

Is the Mercer & Sons Oxford Cloth Button Down Shirt Right For You? It Depends

If you are a very slim chap, Mercer and Sons may not work for you. Also, bear in mind they are a Made-to-Order operation, not Made-To-Measure or Bespoke and as such your fit options are limited. At the same time, the cut is so generous that you will feel very comfortable in them.

In case you are looking for a finely made shirt with attention to details such as buttonholes, mother of pearl buttons or hand-stitching, this is not the shirt for you.

Mercer claims that their shirts last longer than modern, trim cut designer shirts and looking at the shirt, I believe it. The fabric is heavy, the stitching is solid and overall it is somewhat of a workhorse.

A chest pocket is an integral part of an OCBD

A chest pocket is an integral part of an OCBD

While I give them that, I’d rather have a perfectly well-fitting shirt that wears out a year earlier than a somewhat baggy shirt that lasts longer. Of course, it’s up for you to decide what you want.

If you like a sleek checkout experience online, they are not for you. Their website looks like it’s from 1998, and you cannot shop online. You either have to fill out a form, call or email but you cannot buy anything from the website — very old-school, just like the shirts.


Now that you know the benefits of oxford cotton button down shirts, it’s time for you to give them a try. They really are a unique and remarkable piece of clothing and one that you will certainly find a range of outfits to pair with.

Which brand makes your favorite OCBD? Do you have a particular way of wearing them?

This article was written by Sven Raphael Schneider and J.A. Shapira.

Article Name
The Oxford Cloth Button Down Shirt
A short primer on the history, etiquette and tips to buying an Oxford Cloth Button Down shirt.
Gentleman's Gazette
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14 replies
  1. CC Brewer says:

    Re: “Rather than spending $25 on a poorly made button down that you’ll have to replace in a year, double your budget and buy a quality shirt. ”
    Might I suggest that instead of doubling one’s budget (which may not be possible for some of us), you buy one quality shirt instead of buying 2 or 3 bargain-bin shirts.
    The result is the same, but the logic is different.

    • RMD says:

      Well you could always buy vintage via Ebay or Etsy. If you’re looking for a new one, though, the classic Ivy store John Simons is pretty good.

  2. Duncan says:

    I enjoyed the article.

    In the UK in the late 1960s we had a shirt maker called Ben Sherman that produced an OCBD homage. It came in an Oxford type cloth but it had a hook on top of the pleat, darts and was quite fitted. This was my first introduction to the style and I have loved the style ever since.

    In the 1980s I used to travel to Boston and bought some OCBD shirts from the Harvard Coop. These shirts were fabulous: American classics that got better as they were washed.

    I then bought Made in America OCBDs from Brooks Brothers in NYC that again were great shirts and I loved. Brooks Brothers still sell an OCBD but they are made in Whoknowswhereistan and to me it is sacrilegious to buy an American classic made offshore, especially when they charge premium prices.

    I have bought Ralph Lauren but I think you need the chest pocket not a logo of a pony. I have bought Tommy Hilfiger and they are ok but I find that with both of those brands, the button positioning is wrong and the collar does not sit right when worn with a tie. As I tighten the knot the balance of the collar looks wrong. I see a lot of American guys on the TV with BDs struggling with that collar framing.

    I wear BDs usually with knitted ties and a blazer for more relaxed look and they look great. And they have to be relaxed/full fit: I am too old for tight shirts.

    • RMD says:

      Brooks still makes their Must-iron OCBD in Garland, North Carolina. The same factory the used with their previous iteration. Otherwise most, if not all of the rest of the shirts are made in Malaysia. It literally says it on the website. But perhaps you would find more luck with Mercer, considering that Brooks took away their Traditional fit for this new OCBD.

  3. Alexander_F says:

    OCBDs are some of the best things America has ever given to the world, besides chinos. For everyone working in a casual work environment, they are really your best friend, as you can easily wear them after work aswell, after skipping the tie and blazer for something else, and that both summer and winter. I couldn’t think of a more versatile garment, and everyone striving towards a minimalist wardrobe can’t get around them.

    I might say that a navy-white-striped OCBD is the third go-to-item after the obligatory white and a light blue one. Personally, I like those of Charles Tyrwhitt. They may not be classic in all aspects, but they are still a good choice for gentlemen on a budget and come in an agreable variety of colors.

    Thanks a lot for this article and greetings across the Atlantic

  4. Mickey G says:

    I had no idea that this article has supplied. Thank you for enlightening me. I will make sure I play by the rules from now on.

  5. Bromley Steele says:

    Overall this is an excellent article. I think that your evaluation of the Mercer shirt does not point out that they make neck sizes in 1/4 inches, offer a J. Press style pocket, and a popover style placket. They will make a smaller body if asked. I have most of my dress shirts made in England, but not one of the English shirt makers gets the OCBD right. In Montana they know how to make” Ivy League shirts. “

  6. Matthew says:

    Maybe not everyone can get away with it, but the men in my tribe have been wearing OCBDs with suits (preferably of the 3/2 sack variety) for generations.

  7. Straight Arrow says:

    Mercer also produces button-down shirts in broadcloth. Far less bulky than Oxford cloth, they also have a crisper appearance.

      • andrew says:

        no. these shirts are more durable and more versatile than most dress shirts, and some situations call for less formality. they are my go-to shirt for courtroom work because french cuffs, pocket squares, anything that looks expensive or high-styled can turn people off. The same goes for interviews in many businesses, unless highly formal dress characterizes the line of work you are in.

  8. andrew says:

    in over 30 years of wearing ‘dress’ shirts, my closet has always included some oxford button downs among them. I wear oxford button downs out and around, out to dinner, or with a suit. if wearing with a suit, get them pressed or learn how to iron them (i iron my own). Brooks Brothers’ ‘new’ (from early 2016) must-iron oxford button downs do not have a front pocket, which might turn off some buyers, and the most loose-fitting iteration is a fair bit less voluminous than Mercer & Sons. In the made to order realm, Proper Cloth and Michael Spencer make excellent oxford button downs that can be sized the way you like them – for example, by adding 1/4 inch to one wrist to accommodate a watch or to make the shirt more tapered/narrow through the torso – and both feature high-quality fabrics that feel substantial and soften nicely the longer you have them.


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