Actor Jason Mantzoukas is one of the funniest guys I know, and he’s also a big Put This On supporter - he even appeared in one of our episodes. That’s only part of why I so enjoy the Tumblr Jason Mantzoukas Wearing A White Oxford Shirt And Blue Jeans.
Q and Answer: Can I Wear a Tie and a Button-Down Collar?
Matthew asks: I’ll often wear a knit tie with a button-down collar. I figure, a casual tie for a casual shirt. But I can’t find much of a consensus on wearing other ties with one. What are your thoughts on the particulars of ties with button-down shirts?
Here’s the short answer: yes, you can wear a tie with a button-down collar.
The longer answer, as it always does, has a bit more complication.
The button-down collar is a particularly American style. The oxford-cloth button-down is so beloved that in menswear circles it’s become known simply as the OCBD. The collar, originally invented for sport, has become the definitive shirt style for both casual and more formal dress in the United States. Just because it’s a genuine icon, though, doesn’t make it appropriate for every situation.
There is, of course, a heirarchy of formality in shirts. Speaking generally, double cuffs are more formal than single cuffs. Collars grow more formal as their spread widens. Fabrics with harder finishes are more formal than those with softer finishes. Button-down oxfords are the most informal of all. Still, we live in an era where half of the covers of GQ magazine feature men wearing skinny ties with plaid sport shirts, so there’s still plenty of room for the tie-and-button-down combination.
If you live outside the United States, wearing a tie with a button-down collar may be affectedly American, or even inappropriate. I certainly wouldn’t do it if I worked at a London financial services company, for example. Of course, I wouldn’t likely wear a button-down collar much if I lived outside the United States, so it simply wouldn’t come up.
Inside the United States, I think your instincts are absolutely correct. I tend to wear a button-down casually. They pair well with sportcoats, especially casual, texture-y ones, and they look great with knit ties and bows. In fact, I generally prefer button-down collars with both of those tie styles.
The more American your aesthetic, the further you can push this - if you buy all your clothes at J. Press and wear nothing but sack suits, like George H.W. Bush, you can wear a button-down in almost any situation. If you’re of the Anglophilic persuasion, or tend to wear Italian styles, they’re not particularly suitable, even with a blazer or loud checked coat.
If you want to wear a button-down collar with a suit, you’re entering dangerous territory. Above is a famous photograph of Cary Grant in a button-down and suit. It’s a picture that often comes up when people argue about the subject of whether the two are an acceptable pairing. Cary Grant looks great, so as a general rule, I’d say that if you’re Cary Grant, you can wear a button-down with a suit. I’ll also make an exception for the kind of dyed-in-the-wool trads who have sworn a blood oath against suit darts and dress every day like they were going to a meeting at the Dean’s Office at Harvard in 1964. And heck, while I’m at it, I’ll make an exception for the most casual of suits - corduroy.
For all us normals, though, it’s almost never a good move. The best case scenario is that you’ll make it to the level of the inoffensive dress of an insurance conference attendee from Dubuque. The worst case scenario is that you’ll fall short, and end up at the offensive dress of an insurance conference attendee from Dubuque. It’s really not worth the risk.
Q and Answer: The Blue Oxford Cloth Button-Down Shirt
Nik writes: On the menswear blogs I follow, I always see the blue Oxford button-down as the go-to shirt for any occasion, the “only shirt you’ll ever need”. However, I rarely see a button-down worn in a business setting, with a suit and tie, here in Europe. Do I suffer from selective vision or is it an inherently American style (since almost all of the men’s style blogs hail from the States)?
You’re seeing two factors at work, here. The oxford cloth button-down (referred to colloquially by style nerds as the “OCBD”) is indeed an inherently American shirt. It’s also a shirt that isn’t often suitable for business wear.
The OCBD is probably the greatest American contribution to menswear. The shirt features a soft button-down collar and cotton in a durable, richly textured oxford weave. Colored oxfords often combine colored thread with white, creating the soft colors seen above. Oxfords were pioneered by Brooks Brothers at the turn of the 20th century, and they’ve been the classic American casual shirt ever since. Brooks still calls the oxford the “polo” shirt, because the button-down collar was originally seen on polo players. It’s an incredibly versatile shirt, and looks great in a wide variety of contexts.
Its popularity here in the US means that you will often see it paired with a suit. This can be pulled off, especially with a casual suit - say cotton or tweed. It pairs very well with sportcoats and bow ties. It’s mostly worn in a business context, though, by people who just don’t know any better. (There are exceptions: Yankee types steeped in “trad” style might pull it off in a conservative business context.)
In Europe, you might see a button-down collar on a more high-collared Italianate shirt, but the classic OCBD is a relative rarity. More typical is a variation of the traditional English shirt, with a stiffer, spread collar and fabric in a finer weave (a fine oxford is called a “royal oxford”) or a weave with a harder finish, like a poplin.
Q and Answer: Should I Wear Non-Iron Shirts?
Shai writes to ask about non-iron shirts: I love the convenience but am not 100% sure what I’m giving up (partly because I think they’re too good to be true). Is the quality inferior? Do the shirt wear out sooner (if so, is it significant enough that it matters)? Should I avoid certain colors/brands? So far I have only purchased a couple from Brooks Brothers and have been pleased with the results, just trying to learn more.
I own a non-iron shirt. I just bought it recently, actually. It’s a point-collar blue oxford from Brooks’ slim-fit line, and I picked it up for a couple dollars from a thrift store in nearly new condition. It’s the only non-iron shirt I own.
Non-iron shirts used to be made by blending cotton with synthetic fiber (usually polyester). Some, in fact, especially on the low end, are still made this way. Synthetic fiber is cheaper than cotton (particularly since cotton prices have skyrocketed in the last year or so), and it a blend can retain some of the positive qualities of cotton, while gaining some of the non-wrinkling properties of synthetics. Polyester, though, is unnatural-looking, and wears warm and clammy, which is why blends have fallen out of favor.
These days, better non-iron shirts are made by impregnating an all-cotton shirt with a mix of chemicals, including formaldehyde. This means you get less of the stigma of polyester, but it does have downsides. The fabric often has an unnatural sheen, it can be clammy and the chemicals eventually wash out. Even when they are working, their total lack of wrinkles betrays them for what they are.
The real question in my mind is: do you want to avoid wrinkles? Completely? I think a bit of wrinkling through the day is perfectly fine. Maybe even desirable. In fact, some shirts, especially oxfords, don’t really even require ironing. I think that one of a cotton shirt’s greatest qualities is the life that’s built into it. Those non-iron chemicals kill that life.
I love this simple look from the French blog Greensleeves to a Ground. Straightforward mid-century Americana. No extra-slim pants, just a rumpled oxford, some straight-cut chinos and a great jacket.
Q and Answer: Wrinkle-Free Shirts?
Dan in Baghdad writes: What is your thought on wrinkle free shirts? Personally I’m not a big fan: First, they’re never quite wrinkle free. They look okay, but still need a little work after washing to make them look crisp. And many are not really meant to be ironed either—for example one such shirt I purchased from Land’s End, which is 55% cotton and 45% polyester, looks slightly burned/melted after I ironed it.
Wrinkle-free shirts always look worse than natural cotton shirts. Do not buy them.
There are two kinds of non-iron shirt. One is as you describe above: a blend of polyester and cotton. The only time polyester (or almost any petroleum-based fiber) should be in your wardrobe is if you’re buying high-tech “wicking” gym clothes. Polyester has the super power of making things look cheap and ugly.
The second form of non-iron shirt is all cotton, but impregnated with a chemical bath that makes it resist wrinkling. This chemical treatment makes the shirt breathe poorly, look weirdly shiny, and feel slick and unpleasant. It also washes out of the shirt after a few dozen go-rounds with the laundry. This style of non-iron is marginally better than the the other one, but there’s really no reason not to just jettison the weird chemicals all together. Maybe if you travel a lot in places where there are no irons in hotels(?), and need one shirt for emergency looking nice duty. Maybe.
The reality is that for casual wear, most all-cotton oxford shirts look fine without ironing as long as they’re hung dry or at least removed promptly from the drier. The heavy, textural weave of cotton oxford is resistant to wrinkling on its own - the worst you can expect is rumpling, which I for one find kind of charming. It’ll basically end up looking like the one above. I wouldn’t wear a rumpled oxford with a suit, but if I was planning to wear a suit, I’d just iron a proper dress shirt.
If you iron once a week, it will not take you more than the length of one re-run of Seinfeld. I know, because I do my ironing while watching Seinfeld. Usually on Sunday afternoons. Pull your shirts out of the drier while they’re still a bit damp and go to town. It should be easy going.