In last month’s issue of GQ, the magazine managed to twice make an assertion that puzzled us here in Tradsville: namely, that a buttondown-collared shirt is not a dress shirt.
The first instance occurs in question-and-answer format in Glenn O’Brien’s “Style Guy” column:
Most of my dress shirts are buttondown- collar oxfords, but I recently started a job overseas and I’m receiving mixed reviews on pairing them with ties. Most Brits say it’s a faux pas. What is your opinion? Is the oxford too Americacentric to take abroad?
Surprise! The oxford cloth button-down is not a dress shirt! Don’t tell Congress or they might pass a law making it one. It’s not a faux pas to pair a button-down with a tie—say, if you’re going to lunch on the weekend or to see Arsenal play—but for the office, you might want to consider European wisdom and get with the dressier options.
European wisdom? Didn’t we take the ingredients we wanted from European culture, cuisine and wardrobes and come up with our own way of doing things? And for much of the 20th century, as the United States rose to its preeminent position in the world, the men who were running the country (such as the gentleman from the State Department in 1959 who’s pictured above) had no qualms about doing it in buttondown collars. Going back farther, to the time when the fictitious Nick Carraway was a struggling bond salesman, the buttondown was even the chosen shirt of Wall Street.
GQ’s second betrayal of our nation’s sartorial heritage comes by way of the graphic below, where the buttondown is associated with liberal-arts-degree underemployment, in contrast to the semi-spread collar, which ensures rapid career advancement:
But the only thing more fickle than fashion is fashion editors, and GQ seems to have a split personality when it comes the subject of buttondowns. The editors in this shirt guide state that the buttondown is “the old-school, all-American look” that has “never gone out of style and never will.”
We think Bruce Boyer characterized the buttondown best when he wrote in his book “Elegance”:
There are only half a dozen collar styles considered safe for business wear, and the differences are subtle but telling. The button-down collar is at the casual end of the business shirt spectrum and is the jauntiest collar that one can wear in the office or boardroom. Its purposefully nonchalant roll acts as a counterpoint to an otherwise sedate outfit and tends to give the impression of dressed-down and approachable respectability; figuratively as well as literally, it softens the stiff edges of the appearance…
It is the most American of collars, and its intent —which is also the great virtue of American clothing generally — is to relax the appearance, to bring a touch of dishabille to the formality of business garb.
Clearly a schism exists between men who believe that business dress calls for high formality, and those of a trad persuasion who prefer their business dress to be more casual. We recall a tale, perhaps recounted by Paul Fussell, of a mother of moderate means who was so proud her son got invited to a society dance that she bought him a new suit. Unfortunately, all the young men at the dance were wearing blue blazers and chinos.
We notice the same thing when it comes to the cult of formalwear on the Internet. Clearly natural-shoulder dinner jackets with center vents break certain widely accepted conventions of form. For formalwear purists, we fear a country club dance during the Ivy heyday would be an invitation to an aneurism. There they would encounter dinner jackets in madras, batik, tartan or challis, depending on the season; green trousers with a side stripe in Christmas holly; Paul Winston’s youthful habit of wearing a pink buttondown with his dinner jacket; and perhaps even an impertinent interloper wearing tassel loafers with his tuxedo.
Those of the Internet high church might ask where the madness ends. Perhaps the answer is with the 1964 Eagle Shirtmakers’ buttondown formal shirt. Not only did these mavericks think the buttondown was a dress shirt, they also thought it was a formalwear shirt.
It’s ironic that in our casual age the tried and true buttondown should be castigated by the fashion press, when it really should be embraced as the ideal shirt for today’s sometimes casual/sometimes dressy workplace. This lowest level of dress shirt is precisely what is needed today in offices that have sunken into sartorial anarchy. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD & CHRISTOPHER SHARP