What Is The Difference Between a Button Up And A Button Down?
You've heard collared dress shirts referred to as either “button ups” or “button downs”. Both of these terms have been thrown around so much, you’re not sure which is which. Is there even a difference?
They’re both valid terms, but here is the difference:
A button up is a shirt that buttons up the front of the body all the way. A button down is a shirt that has buttons on the collar points that you can, well, button down.
Why Are There Buttons On The Collar?
The button down originated when it was designed for English polo players so that their collars wouldn’t flap around while on horseback. This is why button down collars are considered sportier and more casual (but the button down is not to be confused with what we now call the “polo shirt”, which is a different thing entirely). The button down is still sometimes referred to as a “sports shirt” (but not to be confused with the kind of shirt you work out in).
Turns out shirting is awfully confusing and contradictory.
Does That Mean A Button Down Is Technically Also A Button Up?
Yes, 99% of the time. But not every button up is a button down. It’s like how a square is technically also a rectangle, but not all rectangles are squares.
There are other types of shirts besides ones that button up the front that occasionally feature a button down collar, like this polo from Uniqlo but these are not what people are usually referencing when they say “button down.”
Are You Trying To Confuse Me?
No, just trying to be thorough! OK, we’ll put it as plainly as possible—
Button up shirt: A shirt that fastens in the front with buttons – does not have to have buttons on the collar.
Button down shirt: A shirt with a collar that fastens in place with buttons. Generally also a button up shirt.
Can I wear a tie with a button down shirt?
Heck yeah. When choosing ties and jackets for your button down, remember that your level of dressiness is mostly dictated by the stiffness of the collar. A softer collar, like on a button down oxford, is more casual. A stiffer collar, like on a crisp dress shirt, is more formal. For an example of a super casual soft collar, see The Camp Collar.
When you're truly “dressed up,” like with a more conservative or formal suit and tie, button down collars begin to appear out of place. You are unlikely to see a man wearing “Black Tie” attire with a button down collar.
Can I wear a button down shirt without a tie?
Of course – button downs tend to be more casual due to their sporting roots, after all. And when you leave the top button or two on your shirt undone, fastening the collar buttons is what stands the collar up, giving you that crisp clean-cut look.
If I’m not wearing a tie, do I have to leave the top buttons undone of a button up shirt?
No, not always. You can choose to button your shirt all the way up, even if you’re not wearing a tie. You may have noticed this fashion-forward “air tie” look favored by the likes of Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Gosling, or Timothée Chalamet. But a word of caution: this tends to work better in dressier smart casual outfits. It’s best not to attempt the “air tie” if your only layer is with your Oxford button down.
Do I have to always button the collar buttons on a button down shirt?
No, there’s no rule that says you have to – though it’s a bit unorthodox, you can choose to leave them undone for a more relaxed, rakish effect. There’s also no rule that says this look can only be reserved for a casual day at the beach. One of the best dressed men of our time, Gianni Agnelli – Italian industrialist and head of Fiat – was famous for not fastening the collar on his button downs.
Anytime you're going for a more rakish style, you need to dial in the fit – brush up with our visual guide: How an Untucked Shirt Should Fit
How do I get my collar to stand up?
If you find that your collar droops, sags, or flaps open in an unflattering way (because it doesn’t have buttons to hold it in place), you can help your collar stay in shape with collar stays or placket supports.