The Buttondown Shirt, Not Lost In Translation

Some things get lost in translation — academic jaron, for example — but not the buttondown shirt. 

Settle in for a lengthy read courtesy of Nathaniel Weiner, Ph.D. candidate at York University and his paper “Transatlantic Translations of the Button-down Shirt,” which appears in the journal TranscUlturAl. 

Here’s the article’s opening, as well as relevant passages pertaining to the Ivy League Look:

The button-down shirt is an icon of at least two nationally-determined fashion traditions: The United States’ ostensibly upper-class Ivy League style and Britain’s ostensibly working-class subcultural street style. This article explores how the button-down shirt has been translated in these different national contexts. I will use Roland Barthes’ notion of ‘fashion narrative’ to elucidate the close relationship between the button-down shirt and the ‘national imaginaries’ of the United States and Britain. I will first discuss the origins of these two fashion narratives and explore the links between them. To illustrate the lasting impact of these fashion narratives, I will then compare the modern-day publicity materials of two shirt companies closely associated with the button-down shirt in their respective national contexts…

The button-down shirt plays an important role in the Ivy Look, a less tangible fashion narrative that brings the button-down shirt into the American national imaginary. Along with chinos, penny loafers and sack jackets, the button-down shirt was at the heart of the Ivy look (Marsh and Gaul 48-50). The Ivy Look is often interpreted quite literally as the garb of the elite American Ivy League colleges. Colin McDowell describes the look as “well-bred” and analogous to Saville Row, making it out to be the clothing of the American aristocracy (97). The recent Ivy Style exhibit at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology also emphasised the look’s elite origins (Weiner 96- 100). In his 1965 essay ‘The Secret Vice’, Tom Wolfe described how:

At Yale and Harvard, boys think nothing of going over and picking up a copy of Leer, Poke, Feel, Prod, Tickle, Hot Whips, Modern Mammaries, and other such magazines, and reading them right out in the open. Sex is not taboo. But when the catalogue comes from Brooks Brothers or J. Press, that’s something they whip out only in private. And they can hardly wait. They’re in the old room there poring over all that tweedy, thatchy language about “Our Exclusive Shirtings,” the “Finest Lairdsmoor Heather Hopsacking,” “Clearspun Rocking Druid Worsteds,” and searching like detectives for the marginal differences, the shirt with a flap over the breast pocket (J. Press), the shirt with no breast pocket (Brooks), the pants with military pockets, the polo coat with welted seams—

….and so on and on, through study and disastrous miscalculations, until they learn, at last, the business of marginal differentiations almost as perfectly as those teen-agers who make their mothers buy them button-down shirts and then make the poor old weepies sit up all night punching a buttonhole and sewing on a button in the back of the collar because they bought the wrong damn shirt, one of those hinkty ones without the button in the back.

It is true that the Ivy Look has its roots in the elite prep schools and universities of the East Coast of the United States—this narrative of privilege and affluence formed a powerful fashion narrative into which consumers bought in. However, by the time of its mid-1960s peak, the Ivy Look had become mass fashion for American men (Mears “Ivy Style: Heyday of the mid-century” 96). It was also popular in the black community, especially among musicians (Boyer 137; Marsh and Gaul 122). “Ivy Style’ came to refer to both a campus and post-collegiate look during a period in which college had become much more accessible as a result of the GI Bill and the subsequent expansion of postsecondary education. As such, the Ivy Look was closely bound up with The United States’ post- war national imaginary of classlessness, democratisation, technological innovations and lifestyle improvements.

The Ivy Look’s popularity waned in the late 60s and with its incorporation into ‘prep’ during the 1980s, it again became a symbol of privilege (see Birnbach). This return to American aristocratic narratives can be seen most clearly in the branding of Polo Ralph Lauren, a company started by a former Brooks Brothers employee (Mears “Ivy Style: Revival and Renewal” 148). With the shift to a post-industrial economy, the national narratives of democratization and increased living standards with which the Ivy Look had been associated are by now a thing of the past (Harvey). Nevertheless, stores like Brooks Brothers and J Press, online mail-order companies such as Land’s End and L.L. Bean and the cultish devotion of a hard-core of followers have ensured the survival of Ivy Style as The United States’ unofficial national dress.

A PDF of the nine-page work can be downloaded here.

23 Comments on "The Buttondown Shirt, Not Lost In Translation"

  1. Roger Sack | April 29, 2021 at 7:58 pm |

    I stopped wearing button-downs in the when I joined the State Department and
    chose suits from PaulStuart, and later Chipp with two buttons, nipped waists, and sometimes
    double vents. My shirts were mostly what is now called straight point from BB, Chipp, and others.
    By the 80s I was wearing spread collars from T and A, Andre Oliver and Jermyn St makers. All
    along I stayed with natural shoulder and Ivy type ties and outer wear. My current favorite shirts
    are heavy oxford cloth with spread collars from H and K

  2. I reject your thesis.

    Anyone who claims that ivy style is “the unofficial national dress” of the United States clearly lives in an ivory tower.

    Jeans, t-shirts, baseball caps, and sneakers are the de facto uniform of the American male. Also, athleisure is popular with both sexes.

    Anyone who has visited Harvard Square is keenly aware that Harvard undergrads typically wear sweatpants, baseball caps, and t shirts to class. Ivy style was so unpopular that J. Press has to permanently shut its Cambridge location.

    Perhaps Mr. Weiner’s prospective Ph.D. stands for “Piled higher and Deeper”.

  3. elder prep | April 29, 2021 at 9:20 pm |

    “national imaginaries” I can’t envision anyone using that term in a conversation, but then again, I don’t possess a Ph.D.

  4. “Anyone who has visited Harvard Square is keenly aware that Harvard undergrads typically wear sweatpants, baseball caps, and t shirts to class. Ivy style was so unpopular that J. Press has to permanently shut its Cambridge location.”

    How does the Andover Shop survive? At least so far under new ownership they seem to making it.

  5. Behind Enemy Lines | April 30, 2021 at 2:49 am |

    Master Nathaniel’s having a bit of sport while giving his lecturer a barely-disguised turkey slap. Well played, sir.

  6. Pinpoint Man | April 30, 2021 at 5:58 am |

    Re: Nathaniel Weiner:

    “He is currently researching online menswear communities for his doctoral dissertation.”

  7. Charlottesville | April 30, 2021 at 9:54 am |

    The quotation from Tom Wolfe’s essay was instantly recognizable and the most interesting part of the piece, to me at least. I have it in a collection of his essays somewhere, and must reread it.

    I am not sure about Ivy Style being the predominant contemporary American style (I sincerely wish it were), but the button-down collar seems to be about as common as the spread collar for those who bother to wear something other than T-shirts. Unfortunately, they are usually short, fused and no-iron, which rather spoils the effect. I am afraid, gentlemen, that those of us who notice and care about such things are a distinct minority.

  8. @Mitchell.

    The term “national dress” doesn’t mean everyday clothes — it’s more like “folk costume,” worn to special, formal, or traditional events. An example from Europe would be the dirndl in Germany, i.e., a traditional garment with historical roots, but not something worn every day.

  9. @Taliesen:

    I see your point, but he uses the term “unofficial” national dress.

    Unofficial implies everyday, quotidian, and customary.

  10. @Mitchell.

    I don’t have a PhD in clothes, but it is fair to assume he uses “unofficial” because some countries actually have officially-designated national dress, e.g., a proclamation from the government that so-and-so is the country’s national costume.

    In the end, it seems like you would agree with the author’s thesis — that Ivy has become rare and ceremonial, and is no longer quotidian, akin to, for example, wearing Highland garb in Scotland.

  11. Charlottesville, a sartorial minority I am very happy to be a part of.

    Give me a shirt that must be ironed any day while we’re at it. Still enjoy doing it myself for all but the half dozen or so white dress shirts in the rotation. Yes, yes. I am easily entertained as my late mother used to say now and then.

    Best Regards,

  12. @Taliesin:

    I would never agree with the author’s thesis. He writes that ivy style is “analogous to Saville Row”. Outrageous!

    To add insult to injury, he misspells Savile Row as “Saville Row”. Saville Row:Ivy style is apples:oranges.

  13. Old School | April 30, 2021 at 1:09 pm |

    In the interim, Nathaniel earned his PhD.

    Here are the titles of two  of his articles:

        Weiner N. Fashion vs style: The repudiation of fashion in online menswear communities (2019)
         Barry B, Weiner N. Suited for success? Suits, status and hybrid masculinity. (2017)

    If you click on the the titles in the link below, you’ll be taken to the articles

    https://www.arts.ac.uk/research/ual-staff-researchers/nathaniel-weiner

  14. There’s more than just one Savile Row style, of course.

  15. I wonder if this post counts as a citation.

  16. Apropos the HSC yearbook piece—I know many men, mostly Southern, who insist on a button downed collar. They wouldn’t wear anything else.

    It’s nearly impossible to explain this phenomenon to urban (and urbane) sophisticates who embrace the spread collar with European gusto, as well as people who couldn’t possibly care any less either way.

    Like other quintessentially American totems, the symbolism is undeniable. Wise and best to not venture into this subject any further, but it calls to mind the men I know who happily own and drive Jeeps — and would not be caught dead in a Range Rover, Audi, or Mercedes.

  17. Trevor Jones | April 30, 2021 at 2:34 pm |

    “…the shirt with no breast pocket (Brooks)”. Just a reminder!
    Also, I totally agree with @Taliesin in that “National Dress” does not necessarily mean “everyday garb”.

  18. Vern Trotter | April 30, 2021 at 10:11 pm |

    Yes, I think Jeeps are still made and HQ in Michigan but of course owned by Fiat. Hard to keep track of cars without a scorecard. I have not owned a car in at least 30 years. There is almost no place in the US where you can live a normal life without an auto. NYC, Boston…. where else?

  19. Has anybody else noticed that Jerrod Swanton’s oxfordlothbuttondown.com blog has disappeared?

  20. Marshall Baird | May 1, 2021 at 12:02 am |

    Old Trad: The blog that has disappeared is oxfordclothbuttondown.com, not oxfordlothbuttondown.com

  21. Old Trad,

    The OCBD blog was on the Web until a month ago, as were links to all of the posts since the blog first started. There had been no new posts since May of 2020.

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