I hesitate to call anything a staple, but I can’t imagine getting by without a handful of oxford-cloth button-down shirts in my closet. Unlike the term button-up, which just refers to dress shirts, button-down refers to a collar style – one that Brooks Brothers originally introduced over a hundred years ago. Here, the collar points are secured with small buttons, which give them a soft roll in the shape of angelic wings.
The great thing about an OCBD is that it’s a shirt for all occasions. Oxford cloth is easy to iron, but also looks great rumpled. It’s hardy and lasts forever, but looks better frayed. It also goes with nearly anything, from soft tailored clothing to rugged sportswear. There aren’t many situations where one in the right color doesn’t look great.
The question, of course, is what color. Here’s a rundown of some of the more classic options, along with suggestions on why they may be good or bad.
- White and Light Blue (including stripes): These are your workhorses, just as good with office dress as they are with weekend wear. You’ll never have a problem with coordination. That said, light blue is gentler on the complexion and fits in with today’s casual dress norms. White, on the other hand, is better with suits and looks great with jeans. For a list of recommendable makers, see this post.
- Soft Pink: I remember a time when men thought pink was too effeminate, thanks to the legacy of Mamie Eisenhower and male insecurities (the male ego is a fragile thing). Thankfully, most guys today are past such nonsense. Pink is a nice way to add cheerfulness to almost any outfit, although it does have slightly preppy vibe. Today, you can still find classic bubble gum version at Brooks Brothers, O’Connell’s and Gant, but I prefer the softer shades at Kamakura, J. Press, and Proper Cloth. Stripes are also nice for something low key.
- Sunshine Yellow: The fourth traditional color, but also one of the hardest to wear. Unless you have a dark complexion, yellow shirts can make the skin look sallow by comparison. That said, they can be a nice color in the summer months, especially when set alongside colors such as stone or blue. You can find the more vibrant versions at J. Press and O’Connell’s, but I again favor the softer varieties at Ledbury and Proper Cloth.
- Bone White or Ecru: One of my favorite non-traditional colors. A white oxford shirt is an American classic, but it can look harsh on a bright day or against rustic fabrics such as tweed. For those occasions, I like a mellower ecru – just one shade creamier than white. Use them in any situation where you’d use a white shirt, but stick to white for suits. You can find ecru OCBDs at Michael Spencer and J. Press.
- Red Candy Stripes: Striped shirts are a great way to add visual interest, especially when you pair them with plainer, solid-colored jackets that may otherwise seem too boring. The stronger contrast in a red candy striped OCBD gives the shirt a more casual feel. Use these to dress down sport coats. Michael Spencer and Mercer & Sons make theirs with unlined collars, which I think gives them a superior roll.
- Fancy Stripes: The term “fancy” is used in the cloth trade to refer to patterns that don’t neatly fall into standard categories. For stripes, this means unusual color or width combinations. It’s easy to get into dangerous territory here, but use good judgement. Land’s End and J. Press carry some tasteful designs.
- Sea Green: Miles Davis made this color famous by wearing it on the cover of Milestones. For a while thereafter, jazz aficionados everywhere sought button-downs in a similar color. I find they look great with summer tailoring, or when worn on their own with slim chinos and some brown leather loafers. It’s a very sea-breezy look. You can find these in all sorts of hues at Harry Stedman, Michael Spencer, Proper Cloth, and J. Crew.
- Lavender: Lavender can look great under a grey suit – it lends color and interest. However, it’s easier to wear in finer, smoother weaves such as poplin. If you’re up for a lavender oxford, consider pairing it with more casual tailoring, such as suits made from stone or khaki cotton. Proper Cloth and Kamakura have some nice versions, but I particularly like the striped designs at Brooks Brothers and Michael Spencer.
- Dark Colors: The least formal of all. Best with casualwear, although you can wear these with casual tailored clothing so long as you ditch the tie (otherwise, you can look smarmy). I particularly like these in dark blue – a traditional color that lends contrast against lighter colored sport coats. They’re great for when white or light blue would look washed out. You can find them at Proper Cloth, Ledbury, Wolf vs. Goat, and Gitman. Wolf vs. Goat, an advertiser on this site, also has burgundy OCBDs if you want a more autumnal vibe.