Everyone has a button-up shirt or two in their closet, right? Or should we be calling it a button-down? Many of us don’t know the difference, so it’s time to clear this up once and for all.
The two terms have become interchangeable in most people’s vocabularies, but they aren’t actually the same thing in every instance. As it turns out, there’s one significant detail that sets them apart.
Let’s start with button-downs.
Button-down shirts, like button-up shirts, have buttons running straight down the center of the front of the shirt. But button-downs have an extra set of small buttons right below the collar, and corresponding button holes on the collar tips, to fasten the collar down to the shirt, like so:
The history of the button-down shirt traces back to the 19th century in England, according to men’s lifestyle and fashion magazine The Rake.
Button-downs were originally made for polo players so they could fasten their collars to their shirts during matches, according to Business Insider. The specific collar was reportedly also called a “polo collar” thanks to its connection to the sport, men’s style website He Spoke Style noted. The outlet also said that adding buttons under the collar was initially “a homemade remedy” to keep athletes’ collars from flapping up around their faces while they were playing.
In 1896, a man named John E. Brooks, grandson to the Brooks Brothers founder, saw the button-down in action while watching a polo match during a trip to England, according to The Rake. Brooks liked the way the collar looked and told his grandfather about it, which led Brooks Brothers ― America’s oldest clothing retailer ― to introduce the button-down shirt to American consumers. Around the 1950s, Ivy League students hopped on the trend, as did former president John F. Kennedy.
Interestingly, and perhaps confusingly, style expert Megan Collins of fashion website Style Girlfriend told “Today” in 2016, “A button-down is a button-up, but a button-up isn’t necessarily a button-down. In the way that an apple is a fruit, but not all fruits are apples.”
So what’s a button-up, then?
Button-ups, unlike button-downs, do not have any buttons under the collar, like so:
Button-ups are also referred to as dress shirts, button-front shirts or simply button-fronts.
Of course, many people will continue to refer to button-ups as button-downs, and vice versa, but for all the sticklers out there, now you know the difference.