Roll Of A Lifetime: Esquire On Buttondowns, 1983


A reader recently left a comment saying that collar roll is a fetish of the Internet age and that didn’t exist in the analog decades. Assistant editor Chris Sharp tapped his photographic memory, rummaged through his archives, and immediately produced an article from the April, 1983 issue of Esquire in which John Berendt opined on buttondowns and collar roll. Here are the highlights. — CC & CS

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The mere thought of buttondown shirts reminds me of the late, dapper George Frazier, freewheeling columnist for The Boston Globe and a contributor to this magazine over a span of many years. George Frazier possessed a highly refined sense of style, and he could be moved to eloquence on the cut of a Huntsman suit, the precision of a hunting gun, the elegance of handmade Lobb shoes, or the shoeshine at Ralph Kaufman’s place at the Cleveland airport, which was, in George’s estimation, “an achievement of such matchless glossiness” that on more than one occasion he changes planes in Cleveland just to avail himself of its artistry. “The roll of the collar,” Geoerge used to say apropos of buttondown shirts, “that is the most important thing.”

And, of course, he was right. The roll is everything when it comes to buttondown shirts, the roll being that parabolic curve, described by the forward edges of the collar. The whole idea of the buttondown, historically, has been that it was a soft, unlined collar with long points that would flap in the breeze if they were not tethered. This was the case when John Brooks of Brooks Brothers first laid eyes on them at a polo match in England in 1900. Players had fastened their collars with buttons to keep them from snapping in their faces. Brooks brought the idea back to New York, and from that day to this the white oxford-cloth polo-collar shirt has been Brooks Brothers’ biggest-selling item. The Brooks polo collar has a full roll to it, which is the only contour that makes any sense. Buttondown shirts with short straight collars and no roll are an anomaly; they do not need buttons, they need collar stays.

In its 82 years, the Brooks buttondown has seen very few changes. Colors have been added to the line along the way, most notably pink… As always, the shirt’s heavy oxford fabric is woven exclusively for Brooks…. The body of the shirt is slimmer these days but still “generously” cut. Otherwise, the only news is that in the past decade Brooks has broken its long-standing tradition and put a pocket on the front of the shirt — a move that would have dismayed George Frazier. George kept his pens in his inside jacket pocket and condemned shirt pockets as gauche — something you don’t wear, he said, “not if you know the score.”

31 Comments on "Roll Of A Lifetime: Esquire On Buttondowns, 1983"

  1. OldSchool | March 7, 2015 at 2:00 pm |

    The best thing I’ve come across on OCBD collar rolls:

  2. Christian | March 7, 2015 at 2:15 pm |

    I guess the commenter was partly right…

  3. Vern Trotter | March 7, 2015 at 2:15 pm |

    Looking back, it was curious and grassy knoll suspicious that the collar roll began to vanish at about the same time the pocket began to appear on all shirts.

    In my not so humble opinion, Mr. Frazier not withstanding, the paratrooper spit shine at the St. Louis airport’s Dr. Shoe was the best shoe shine in the country. Of course I also recall the girls who ran a topless shoeshine across from the Prudential Center in Boston.

  4. Gantshirt | March 7, 2015 at 2:19 pm |

    Nicely expressed. It does bring up ye olde bugaboo of button down with suit? On that issue, I went through the archives of Natural Shoulder, which is a fine index of Ivy. Saw button down collars with suits on the following boys: Dean Atcheson, William Colby, Allen Dulles, Henry Cabot Lodge, and many others of same ilk, rank and mien. If you know your American diplomatic and intelligence history, you know these were serious chaps. If they say it’s OK, it’s OK, and if you disagree, I’ll have to call in a napalm strike.

  5. Gantshirt | March 7, 2015 at 2:32 pm |

    BTW, check out the superb run of JFK photos on Voxsartoria right now: all button down, including one in suit.

    Speaking of shoeshines, the real center of the culture used to be the 1st Bn (Reinf), 3d Inf at Arlington National Cemetery–these were tomb guards and funeral ceremonial soldiers–who passed shoes down soldier to soldier as tours ran out, with glossy shines that took years of barrack-intense , nothing-else-to-do effort (and spit) to get so bright. Now it’s all patent leather and Pledge.

  6. Vern Trotter | March 7, 2015 at 4:32 pm |


    Duly noted. JFK and Bush the Elder were more trad/Ivy style before they ran for the White House, for obvious reasons. Mrs Kennedy looks better in the DA (Duck’s Ass) doo popular in the early to mid fifties.

  7. Richard Meyer | March 7, 2015 at 4:47 pm |

    Vern is correct about the shirt pocket and loss of the collar roll. The current “non-iron” BB shirts (from Malaysia) do not approach the collar roll of the classic BB buttondown. Mercer shirts currently do have the correct roll. Yes, a BD can be worn with even a quite formal, dark suit-Astaire often did, as did the late, lamented Mr. Frazier, still and always my mentor on things sartorial.

  8. Notice that the Esquire 1983 article describes the button down collar as “soft” and “unlined.” BB shirts I bought in the 1990s still had those qualities. When did it change?

  9. Gantshirt, good call, the 3rd herd! If one ever needs a patriotic boost, just watch them changing guards at the tomb..superb!

  10. From a Van Heusen ad, 1964: “Van Heusen. The Button-Down At Its Best. Return to the traditional for comfort, quality and good looks. The back hanger loop, pleat and back button make this shirt the (?) traditional style. The soft, graceful collar roll and V-Taper are Van Heusen’s own. They make this shirt as hallowed as the Ivy halls. $15.00.”

    Arrow ad, also 1964: “Arrow Cum Laude, a gutsy button-down oxford in pure unadulterated cotton. High collar band that doesn’t get lost under a sweater or jacket. Long, swooping collar points that button up a perfect collar roll…”

    Collar roll was most definitely a feature of the Ivy heyday.

  11. “A reader recently left a comment saying that collar roll is a fetish of the Internet age and that didn’t exist in the analog decades.”

    From where – the internet itself, I suppose – would one GET such an absurd idea?

  12. Richard Meyer | March 8, 2015 at 7:15 am |

    ” Here comes my date. He’s a French model. I read it on the internet”. That’s where people who are clueless about matters sartorial get their info, apparently.

  13. I “delete” the pockets from my shirts in minutes, using care and a seam ripper.

  14. “The whole idea of the buttondown, historically, has been that it was a soft, unlined collar with long points that would flap in the breeze if they were not tethered. This was the case when John Brooks of Brooks Brothers first laid eyes on them at a polo match in England in 1900. Players had fastened their collars with buttons to keep them from snapping in their faces. Brooks brought the idea back to New York, and from that day to this the white oxford-cloth polo-collar shirt has been Brooks Brothers’ biggest-selling item…”

    Another key phrase: “long points.”

    If left unbuttoned, any modern day collar under 3.5″ wouldn’t threaten to “flap in the breeze” and/or snap the faces of anyone. Especially if lined (stiff). Granted, I am made-to-order snob about OCBDs (these days I give Skip Gambert the highest ranking, followed by Individualized and New England Shirt). This noted, a 4″ collar with buttons moved up a bit is the way to, uh, roll.

    I think I once caught a glimpse of the platonic form. An older picture of a vested Dean Acheson. The soft collar, dimpled and rolling, is a thing to behold. A fleeting middle finger to the starched stiffies of a former (Victorian) era.

  15. Unfortunately Brooks has decided to roll over concerning the traditional stance on OCBD’s which undoubtedly has John Brooks rolling over in his grave. All we can do is roll our eyes and go custom.

  16. To divert from pure Ivy I believe that Dean Martin wore a button down shirt under his dinner jacket on his sixties variety show. Moreover I’ve seen photos where his ordinary shirt collar is quite longish and button down. I suspect they were a product of Sy Devore,

  17. Bags' Groove | March 8, 2015 at 6:32 pm |

    I’m now looking forward to CC & CS’s next great shirt collar feature: “Cutaway of Classic Time”.

  18. @wianno85

    Your mention of Sy Devore brought back unpleasant memories of the fact that in the 50s and 60s in Southern California it was far easier to find Devore-influenced clothing than it was to find anything even vaguely Trad/Ivy.

  19. All that comes up is ad copy? Brooks touted their collars and OCBD repeatedly throughout the 70s and eighties.This does not support the assumption that men frequently spoke about and obsessed over collars, or for that matter, clothes in general, to the extent they do today. Back then speaking about mens fashion to any frequency had a certain stigmata about it. You bought a BB shirt because it a good value and was able to be worn well in many social callings. There was never any need to sweat all the details. Today, I am surprised men can get dressed at all. Is my tie dimpled and the back blade showing? Is my collar rolled? Do I have the perfect no break floods on? Boyer’s main assumption of nice old clothes still holds true. Build an nice warddrobe based on the best quiality and stop worrying about the rest. Everything else will fall into place naturally anyways.

  20. @E: I second your comment strongly.

  21. As a historian of dandyism I can assure you that certain men obsessing over their appearance can be traced throughout civilization. The Internet has just allowed the super-fussy obsessives to have a voice and ban together.

    There was Brummell spending hours getting ready, the fops so often caricatured in Restoration comedies, and plenty of famous Romans known for their flamboyance (Heliogabalus) or their elegance (Alcibiades).

    The ol “men didn’t use to care as much about clothes” is as tired a canard as the “guys are caring more about their appearance and dressing up more” news stories that we hear every two years.

    Nothing changes, save for the amount and flow of information. And today we live in an information age.

  22. Speaking of OCBD collar rolls, has anyone tried the new J. Press stock? Best I recall, the ones with the made in USA tag at the collar are made by Brooks (Garland).

  23. Christian,

    I could not agree more. The world is the same as it ever was despite what others would lead you to believe.

  24. @Christian:
    What I think E meant, or rather what I took from it was the degree to which men fuss over their clothes, label, etc. Of course Romans, Greeks, Kings of France, Spain, England, etc. fussed over their attire to present themselves above the average person. I believe (could be wrong) E meant in the 20th century. They certainly cared about appearance, white Bucks, Penny Loafers, Brooks or J.Press etc but not to the degree which people do today, or rather even very close.
    I talk to my grandfather a lot about it, he said when he was growing up around high school guys started caring more about their appearance and clothes but it was not like today. They never were as I guess you would say (or as he says) “womanly” as men are today. Then again he was a Main Line WASP not a Dandy.

    Not sure if I was at all clear by what I said, but to summarize I think you’re both right.

  25. LA Trad What about Carroll and Company?

  26. Chris Sharp is right. The precise roll of the b.d. was crucial. Actually, Bert Pulitzer first got it right for the then younger generation. Circa 1975, or earlier, ask Bert.

  27. Thanks Bob, That’s interesting info about Bert.

  28. Bob
    Pulitzer shirts were the bomb and his ties the best in the 70s.

  29. Charlottesville | March 10, 2015 at 10:44 am |

    I agree about the Bert Pulitzer ties of days gone by, and still have a green foulard that I wear now and then, despite the fact that it is showing a bit of wear. His more recent ties for XMI, however, do not do much for me.

  30. @ D.P.S.IV — men today fuss more about their clothes? Where are these guys? Certainly nowhere near where I live.

    If your grandfather is a Main Line WASP, round about the year of this Esquire article (1983) his neighbors on the Paoli Local would have been wearing seersucker suits with pale pink shirts and white bucks, or tan poplin suits with straw boaters and madras ties. To cocktail parties over the weekend, madras, Lily, and brightly colored linen sport jackets. All of this rather resplendent not to say self-conscious wear would have come from a very small and select group of establishments — brand was hugely important.

    What I think IS true to say is there’s much more interest today in men’s grooming. No longer limited to a cold-water shave with Barbasol and the short no-nonsense Vince-the-barber haircut.

  31. Len Longville | October 8, 2017 at 2:23 pm |

    As some commenter noted elsewhere, the roll was probably not intended at all, but came about when all-cotton shirts shrunk, as all-cotton shirts should.

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