Most people immediately think of a man’s dress shirt when they hear “button down.” You may picture the starched white shirts Ward Cleaver or your own father wore, or the Oxford-cloth shirts boys wear with school uniforms. The reality of how button-down shirts can be worn is different. Button down shirts are a wardrobe workhorse in both women’s and men’s clothing, and yes, they can absolutely be casual, either by styling or by design!
Some button-down shirts were never meant to be dress shirts in the first place. Think of bright Hawaiian shirts, soft chambray shirts and comfy flannel shirts. They all share a basic design that includes a button-down placket, but no one would call them dress shirts; they are more casual by definition. One way to tell if the button-down shirt you are wearing is meant to be tucked in or not is the shape of the shirttail—longer, curved shirt tails are meant to be tucked in while those cut straight across at a shorter length are meant to stay outside the waistband. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but a good rule of thumb: a tucked-in shirt is always dressier than an un-tucked one. Fabric provides clues, too. Poplin, Pima cotton, and broadcloth tend to be dressier than softer flannels and chambrays. However, it’s important to remember that button-down shirts are one of the most versatile pieces of clothing you can own, and you can almost always choose how to mix and match a button-down to suit your needs and taste at the moment.
When considering whether button-down shirts are casual wear, simply picture a Kennedy or a Bush on the campaign trail in days of yore. The exact same shirt gave off a completely different vibe depending on whether it was paired with a traditional suit or with easy khakis. Both of these families are known for their relaxed, elegant style, Preppy good taste, and ability to fit into any situation. Your button-down shirts can take you just as many places with just as much panache!
Wearing a button-down shirt casually is all about styling—are you wearing dressy slacks or trendy jeans? Are you tucking the shirt in or leaving the tail out? Has the shirt been professionally pressed with starch, or washed and hung up at home? Are the sleeves rolled up to disrupt the formal line of long sleeves? For men, have you taken off your tie and removed the collar stays for a softer look? The choices you make about how to wear your button-down shirt will dictate whether or not it looks dressy or casual. Even better, when you do style your button-up shirt as casual wear, it will still lend a pulled-together air to your ensemble. You can get credit for looking sharp even as you lean into a completely comfy outfit.
Those options are only considering if a button-down shirt is casual when worn on its own. Wearing a button-up under a sweater or jumper-style dress, or over a sundress in place of a cardigan opens up entirely new styling avenues for a garment that is in nearly everyone’s wardrobe regardless of taste or clothing budget. This versatility makes for a nimble wardrobe that can be configured and re-configured to suit any venue or occasion.
As standards of dress in our culture grow ever more casual, button-down shirts will occupy a lot of space on both sides of the question. A traditional dress shirt will always be the standard complement to a business suit, but men who no longer wear business suits to the office—attorneys and bankers among them—may opt for easier button-up shirts that help them look and feel their confident best even when wearing jeans to the workplace. Women who aren’t pressured to “dress for success” may simply embrace the way a well-tailored shirt enhances their figure and helps them feel great about their appearance.
Button-up shirts are a rare garment that really can be almost all things for all people. They are attractive, flexible, and comfortable, and can be styled up or down. A button-down shirt always makes a good impression on others and lends a polished air to any ensemble. At the same time, they can be relaxed, easy to wear, and casual. Add a few to your wardrobe to see this endlessly versatile piece in action for yourself.