The world of collared button-up shirts can be hard to navigate, especially if you’ve only worn t-shirts and hoodies for most of your life. Of the many different styles and materials and patterns that exist for collared shirts, there are two super-categories that you need to be aware of: collared shirts with buttons (“button-down collar”) and collared shirts without buttons (“point collar”).
Note: A shirt with buttons along the front is a button-up shirt whereas the collar on such a shirt could be a button-down collar. A shirt is buttoned up while a collar is buttoned down. Avoid using the term “button-down shirt” because it’s incorrect and will cause confusion for everyone involved.
Example of a button-down collar by Goodthreads:
Example of a point collar by Goodthreads:
Button-down collars were created in 1896 for polo players, who needed a way to keep their collars from flapping about as they rode on horses. Due to their origin in sports, button-down collars are less formal than point collars. They tend to be softer and have more of a roll than point collars, which are straight and often stiffened via the insertion of collar stays.
In other words, button-down collars are on the casual end of the style spectrum while point collars are on the business and formal end, with a small bit of overlap between.
You can wear a button-down shirt without a tie, which would go well with other casual pieces like jeans, chinos, loafers, boat shoes, nicer sneakers, etc. Or you can dress it up with a tie, in which case you’d wear it with a blazer, sports jacket, chinos, trousers, wingtips, etc. But you don’t want to wear a button-down shirt with a formal suit outfit, because the visible collar buttons will mismatch the rest of the ensemble and stand out in a bad way.
Whether you wear a tie or not, you should always button the collar of a button-down shirt. This is the one and only “rule” for wearing button-down shirts. Leaving the collar unbuttoned will not turn it into a makeshift point collar for more formal occasions. Instead, it will look messy and uninformed.
You can also affect the level of formality in a button-down shirt by being mindful of its color and pattern. A shirt that’s a solid block of conservative blue might work for smart business attire; a shirt with tight stripes or a small gingham pattern might work for casual business attire; whereas a shirt with a large tartan or madras pattern is best for casual hangouts outside of business.
Note that there is a type of button-down shirt where the collar buttons are hidden. It’s fittingly called a “hidden button-down collar,” and instead of having holes in the collar points, you’ll find loops attached to the underside of the collar with the buttons also located under the collar. Just connect the loops to the buttons and your collar will stay buttoned down without any of the buttons being visible to onlookers. This kind of shirt straddles the casual/formal spectrum: they can be worn more formally than normal button-down collars, but the collars are usually softer than point collars so they might still look out of place in a suit.
One last thing: I’ve been referring to non-button-down collars as “point collars” throughout this article, but you should know that that’s not exactly correct.
A point collar is the most common type of buttonless collar, where each end of the collar comes down in a sharp point. Here’s a point collar example by Calvin Klein:
But there is also the spread collar, where each point of the collar points away and toward the side, which is better for certain face shapes. Here’s a spread collar example by Calvin Klein:
And there’s the cutaway collar as well, which looks like the collar points have been sliced off and is even rarer than point and spread collars. Here’s a cutaway collar example by Bar III:
We’ll have a separate guide on knowing which type of buttonless collar is best suited for your face shape. For now, just know that while button-down collars mostly take on the form of a point collar with button holes, there are other collar types out there beyond the point collar.