The current issue of GQ has an interesting question-and-answer exchange in the “Style Guy” advice column. A reader asks:
I heard somebody refer to a button-down-collar oxford shirt as “middle-management” the other day. I always thought the oxford was the great American shirt. Have I been sending the wrong message all this time?
First off, the reader sounds like he works in some kind of “American Psycho” milieu. “Middle management” is probably a fair epithet if your ambition is to be a Master of the Universe.
As for columnist Glenn O’Brien’s response, let’s take the second part first:
Some say that JFK wore button-downs with suits until Jackie crticized him for it, and then he began to get on the case of the guys on his team, like Bobby Kennedy and Paul Fay, telling them they looked too Ivy League. The button-down is the shirt equivalent of the loafer. You can wear it with a suit, but only when you’re dressing your suit down.
Fair enough. The content of this part was possibly found from Ivy-Style.com, which supplies 18 of the top 20 Google results for the search query “JFK button down oxford.” But hey, that’s what we’re here for.
Now to the second part of O’Brien’s answer:
Many American men mistake the button-down-collar shirt for a dress shirt, especially when it’s white, and this misjudgment is often found in high places, from corproate suits to Congress.
You can see why I thought you guys might enjoy sinking your teeth into this one. If only more businessmen and politicos wore oxford-cloth buttondowns! Perhaps they’d start wearing natural-shouldered suits to match, and we’d all have more to choose from.
And yes, the buttondown oxford may have been a sport shirt for polo players in England 120 years ago, but we — or rather Brooks Brothers — made it an American dress shirt.
I think the button-down-dress-up thing started as a preppy affectation.
Well, I see what he’s suggesting. The shirt probably was embraced for its rumpled casualness, but why must that be an affectation? I think the entire WASPy/preppy/Ivy approach to dressing — being relatively dressed up with casual attire and relatively dressed down with formal attire — is one of its greatest virtues. Can’t that simply emanate from a set of values, one in which the shirt’s heartiness and longevity, not to mention versatility (dress it up, dress it down, wear it over a polo when a sweater would be too much) speak to WASPdom’s reverence for utility?
Besides, affectation is almost unheard of among the original arbiters of oxford-cloth buttondowns. And when they paired them with whale-embroided chinos, they were being whimsical but they were also being “correct.” There’s no such thing as WASP irony or affectation — save for the affectation of being unaffected.
Speaking of “button-down mind set,” which is the title GQ gives to the Q&A exchange, it’s high time we acknowledge Bob Newhart and his best-selling 1960 comedy album “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart.” My dad had this and I discovered it as a kid when I first started sifting through his record collection. I was too young to appreciate it, but I remember liking the driving instructor bit:
Here Newhart discusses how the album came about, and how he needed Warner Brothers, who had chosen the title, to explain it to him. They explained, of course, that it was a reference to the men of Madison Avenue who worked in fields like advertising and all wore buttondown collars. — CC