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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.