If there’s one shirt a guy should have in his wardrobe, it’s a button down. Hands down, the button down shirt is one of the most essential and versatile pieces a man can own. Having a few of these in your closet can help complete your wardrobe. They are the perfect middle ground between a t-shirt and a dress shirt, allowing you to look put-together, stylish and relaxed all at the same time. Don't forget to select your height and bodytype to filter the information applicable to you!
In this guide we’ll cover the 80/20 of button downs, giving you the information you need to rock these with confidence.
Feel free to read it in order or check out the table of contents to jump to sections.
They may look alike, but a button down is different from a dress shirt. Dress shirts are meant to be more formal and are typically worn with suits or dress pants, while button downs can easily be dressed up or down. The biggest difference is button downs can be worn untucked or tucked, where as a dress shirt must always be tucked in.
There are 4 ways to tell the difference between a dress shirt and a button down:
Button down sizes are written as XS, S, M, L, and XL on the tag. However, dress shirts come in a numerical neck (i.e. 17) and arm length (i.e. 34/35) written as: 17 34/35. This is one of the easiest ways to know if the shirt you have is a button down or dress shirt.
Button downs are cut shorter so you have the choice to tuck or not tuck them. However, dress shirts are made extra long because they are meant to always be tucked in. So, if the shirt is going past your zipper and creeping into thigh territory, it's probably a dress shirt. We'll talk about button down length below and what you can do if your button down is simply just too long.
Button downs are usually found on hangers in the casual clothing section (i.e. next to jeans). Alternately, dress shirt usually come pre-folded with pins and clips to keep it in place and are placed near suiting and ties. Dress shirts can come hung, it just depends on the retailer.
The fabric on the collar and cuffs in button downs are the same throughout the shirt. With dress shirts the fabric, especially around the wrist cuff and collar, tends to be a bit stiffer for a more formal look.
You might have heard the words “button up” and “button down” used in reference to these shirts. There is actually a very small difference between a button “up” and “down”, which is button “downs” have little buttons on the end of the collar, where as a button “up” doesn’t.
So what’s the point of the little buttons? They were initially meant for polo players so their collars wouldn’t go flying in different directions when playing. The benefits of the little buttons to the modern man? They keep the collar intact.
Buttons or no buttons? Shirts without the buttons can look slightly more dressy, other than that, it’s a personal preference thing.
When deciding how to wear a button down, the age old questions comes up: to tuck or not to tuck? The answer: it depends on the occasion and what vibe you’re looking to give off.
Anywhere you need to look dressed up, sharp, or professional - tuck in your shirt.
What are these settings? Think: dinner date at a nice restaurant, job interview, networking, wedding rehearsal dinner, or symphony. Also, if you’re planning on wearing something over your shirt like a blazer or sweater and want to look sharp, tuck it in.
Go untucked when you want to look relaxed. Think: bars, park day, coffee shop, running errands, house parties, or a casual date. If you highly prefer going untucked most of the time, that's totally fine because the modern man style allows you to do so and still look on point. Keep in mind, if you feel like tucking in your shirt for casual occasions, you definitely can.
You can pair your untucked shirt with a blazer, casual jacket or sweater, but keep in mind this look is in “relaxed” territory. If you want to wear your untucked shirt with a blazer, make sure there is no or very minimal amount of shirt showing in the back. However, if your shirt is longer than your sweater or casual jacket (i.e. bomber jacket), it's fine.
All in all, if you want to give off a classic and sophisticated vibe, go for the tuck. If you want to give off a more chill and relaxed vibe, go untucked. Can you give off a chill vibe with a tucked in shirt? Of course, just roll up your sleeves and keep the top button undone.
A little too often guys wear their untucked shirts too long. Here’s a rule of thumb: the shirt should fall anywhere between the middle and just above the bottom of your zipper. The closer to the middle of the zipper, the better.
The white lines indicate the “safe zone” of how long or short your button down should be. Anything above is too high and anything below is too long. Wearing your shirt near the middle of your zipper will make your legs look longer and make you appear taller.
On the other hand, button downs that are too long will make your torso look unproportionately long and your legs look shorter. If your button down covers your whole zipper, it's too long.
There are two easy ways to roll up your sleeves: (1) the Casual Roll or (2) the Italian Roll.
If you're new to rolling, practice rolling when you are not wearing the shirt.
All things even, your roll style is a personal preference. The Casual is simple, clean and easy, while the Italian can be alittle more complex. However, if the inside of your button down cuff has a print and you want to show it, the Italian Roll is perfect for that.
You can go from a simple single roll to all the way up to your elbow. The higher up you go, the more casual it will look. However, don’t go past the elbow or it will look awkward. Let's go over some example lengths:
Excited to show off that new watch? Try folding your sleeves anywhere in the forearm area, which is about 2 to 3 rolls. This is a nice length to keep it clean and classic, and also works for business casual.
You can fold your half sleeve button down shirt once or twice, depending on how long your sleeves are. Fold at the cuff and fold once more or twice more.
If your button down sleeves are really baggy, wide or sticking out, that means the fit is off. Trying to fold an ill-fitted half sleeve button down will make it look like you have wings. Red Bull anyone?
Having cuffs this high and sticking out will look awkward and add an unnecessary origami effect to the arms. It looks like an incomplete Italian roll.
Unless you're delivering newspapers in the 1920's, avoid rolling past your elbows. Once you do this, your sleeves will bulk up and create really large cuffs. Don't be fooled into thinking this will make your biceps look bigger, it will just look weird.
The more pockets that you have on your shirt, the more casual it becomes. Other than that, pockets or no pockets is a personal preference.
No pockets offers a clean and dressy look. You can easily tuck this shirt in and wear it with a tie and slacks.
One pocket is convenient, especially for storing sunglasses. Depending on how the rest of the shirt looks, the pocket can add a touch of casual to the look. Going for smaller patterns or solids with a pocket can keep it on the dressy side of things, especially if you wanted to tuck it in. Having a button on your pocket makes it casual.
Double pockets make a shirt casual. You would not wear this to any place you need to "dress up".
Some nicer button downs can be pulled off with a tie. The biggest thing to watch out for is material and patterns. For example, solids are easy to pull of with a tie and some plaids too. I'll go over some examples to make it easier to understand.
Wearing a button down and tie with a suit works for business and business casual settings. In the example below, the guy is wearing a plaid shirt that works really well with a tie and suit. However, if you need to be very formal, stick to a dress shirt.
Avoid large and casual looking prints when trying to pair a button down with a tie. For example, the large box plaid in the example below screams casual, while the tie will try to make it look dressy, which is a recipe for confusion.
Pairing your button down and tie with a sports coat keeps the look smart. You can easily dress up or down the looks with pants: jeans (casual, but nice), chinos (smart) and slacks (dressy).
If you are wearing a tie, tuck in your shirt and do up the top button. Your button down should be long enough to tuck into your pants without it coming out every time you raise your arms. Besides it looking very bad if it keeps coming out of your pants, it will be very annoying.
If your shirt looks too casual (i.e. has two pockets, is a very thick flannel, has too many button details, has an embroidered design on it etc.) a tie won’t look good and it will definitely throw off the look.
What about the untucked button down tie look? Honestly, don't do it. It's trying to be formal, but not. Basically, you’ll look like a young pop singer at an award show who’s trying to look “cool”. Avoid.
What to wear with your button down can be broken down by Casual, Smart, and Dressy. You can mix and match the tops, bottoms, and shoes to make something casual look more dressy and vice versa.
A couple of notes:
There you have it, all the ways you can make outfits with button downs. Keep in mind, you can easily switch out certain pieces like shoes or jackets to easily dress up or down a look. Use the examples above as a base and make edits to fit your style.
One of the most important things you can do to dress well is wear clothes that fit properly. This means avoiding shirts that are too baggy or too tight. Luckily, brands make fits beyond Small, Medium and Large to help you achieve this.
The collar doesn't need to be snug, but make sure there isn't an obvious gap either. A sharp collar looks more professional, if your collar is weak, consider getting a collar stays.
Test: You should be able to comfortably fit two fingers inside your collar.
The shoulder seam should fall right at the edge of the shoulder. Going past the edge will make your shoulders look sloped. Going too high will make your shoulders look narrow.
The shirt should not pull at your chest nor should there be extra fabric hanging around the underarms.
Test: Sit down and see if the buttons pull. You can also raise your arms and make a triangle above your head to see if the chest pulls, however, the more important thing is to make sure it doesn't pull when you are in a normal stance or sitting.
The arms should not be frumpy, but don't need to be tight at the same time. You should be able to bend your arm and not have the fabric pull.
Test: Raise your arm to the side and you shouldn't be able to grab more than 1 to 2 inches of fabric right under your bicep.
The length should fall past your wrist, right at the base of the hand.
Test: Flex your hand and you will see a dimple at your wrist near the thumb, your shirt cuff should end at this dimple.
Make sure the shirt follows along your body and slightly shapes the waist. None of the buttons should pull, especially when you sit.
Test: Grab all the excess fabric around your waist to one side, you shouldn't be able to grab more than 2 to 3 inches of fabric.
The back should lay flat. There shouldn't be any fabric billowing out at the back. However, it shouldn't be uncomfortably tight.
Test: Put your hands straight out in front of you and there shouldn't be any uncomfortable pulling of fabric.
The shirt should fall anywhere between the middle and bottom half of your zipper, the closer to the middle the better. The top your back pockets should be covered.
Test: Raise your hands in the air and create a triangle with your arms. Check to see if your stomach is exposed. If you're a tucked in kind of guy, make sure the shirt doesn't come out of your pants.
One more thing to note is the hem of the shirt, which is the bottom of the shirt. There are two types:
A bit of a rounded hem is pretty standard in button downs and is the easiest to work with. If your hem is rounded and is showing the side of your belt loops, it’s too short.
A flat hem can be a little trickier. If you have a beer belly or are naturally round, avoid a flat hem as it can obstruct the otherwise straight bottom finish and make your stomach look bigger.
And that, my friend, is how your perfect button down should fit. Now you might be thinking, "How is a button down supposed to fit me that well off the rack?" Never fear, I have a solution for you, which is your new best friend, the tailor.
Wait! Before you get rid of that shirt, there's still some hope. Tailors can be your best friend when it comes to making sure your shirt fits you to the T! However, keep in mind that tailors can cut or take in fabric, but can't add fabric. For example, they can easily shorten a shirt, but not lengthen it.
Not sure if the price is right? Call a couple of spots and compare prices for the service you want. Bigger cities may charge more for services than smaller towns.
One of the biggest style mistakes you can make is wearing an ill-fitted shirt. A fitted shirt can make you look more fit, tall and stylish, where as a bad fit will overwhelm you. If your shirt fits like the example below, you will look wider and shorter than you are.
Aside from prints and patterns being aesthetically pleasing, they can help make our bodies appear bigger or smaller than they are. When deciding what pattern is best for you, the main thing to consider is creating balance with the upper body and lower body. For example, if you have a larger upper body and a slimmer lower body, going for a shirt with vertical stripes will help even you out.
Keep in mind that this guidance is a great stepping stone for those of you who are new to the style game. Once you get comfortable and confident with your clothes, feel free to start experimenting with different prints, patterns and lengths to see how they make you feel. This advice is to help you better understand why something might look good on you vs why it might not and what to watch for.
Light colored shirts are an easy staple to keep in your wardrobe. They are very versatile and can pair with numerous bottoms. If a bold white shirt isn’t your thing, try lighter shades of any color such as blue or grey to achieve a similar effect.
It’s a good idea to keep a couple of darker shirts on hand, especially for going out at night. Medium to dark colors doesn't mean wear navy blue or black all the time. Instead, stick to medium to darker shades of your favorite colors like "olive” in the green family or “burgundy” in the red family.
Horizontal stripes are pretty classic when it comes to prints. You don't have to only go for horizontal stripes, but can go for a pattern that has prominent horizontal stripes to achieve the same effect like in the example below on the left.
Stripes just across the chest is a fun way to wear horizontal stripes without worrying about appearing wide or short.
Stripes Across Chest:
Vertical stripes are pretty classic and can easily be dressed up when tucked in and worn with dress pants or chinos.
From classic to fun to bold, there are plenty of prints to pick from. Just like horizontal and vertical stripes affect the appearence of our bodies, the size and contrast of prints can also make our bodies appear larger or smaller than they are.
Let's first start by defining some common types of prints:
Micro-prints are small repeated patterns througout the fabric. Micro-floral print is a specific example of micro-prints that more men are wearing to stand out of the crowd. Floral not your thing? No worries, there are plenty of other micro-prints available.
Novelty prints are fun prints like pineapples, animals or lightening bolts that repeat throughout a shirt. If you have an outgoing personality or like your clothes to speak for you, these are a great choice.
Geometric prints are small repeated patterns that consist of a geometric shape like dots or squares. Geometric prints are a great starting point for those who like to play it safe.
Plaid is one of the most classic prints out there. Plaid consists of two or more colors repeating in horizontal and vertical lines. We’ll diver deeper into plaid below.
Gingham is in the plaid family and consists of two or more colors running horizontally and vertically creating small boxes.
Abstract prints consist of unique patterns that don't have a specific shape to them, think of an abstract painting.
High contrast prints are a fun way to stand out of the crowd. High contrast means the shirt's base color and print color are opposite (i.e. black and white).
High Contrast Prints:
Prints with less contrast is a great stepping stone for those entering the world of patterns since they’re more subtle. Low contrast is when the base color and print color are similar (i.e. light blue and medium blue).
Low Contrast Prints:
Plaid is one of the most classic prints out there, but that also means it's everywhere. However, there is a way to avoid looking like every other guy in the room, which is by playing around with different sizes and prints of plaid.
Each style of plaid can create an illusion of appearing wider, slimmer, taller, shorter etc. Let's look at a few and see what effects they create:
Extra large sized plaid with contrast makes the body appear bigger.
Medium sized plaid with little contrast is balanced.
High contrast medium sized plaid make the body appear wider.
High contrast small sized plaid makes the body appear bigger, but not as much as example 3.
The horizontal stripes look subtle, but stand out enough to make the body appear wider.
The dark on dark medium gingham print makes the body appear slimmer. This is a medium sized gingham print, there are smaller versions out there.
Less contrast and small sized plaid makes the body appear slimmer.
Medium contrast print and large size plaid makes the body appear bigger.
Your choice of fabric can vary depending on the time of the year and how formal the occasion. I’m not going to bore you with a complete lesson in fabrics, but here’s a summary of what you actually need to know:
Cotton shirts are pretty common. They can be lightweight and breathable depending on the fabric weight. The lighter the weight, the thinner the shirt, the more breathable it is. If you want extra comfort, go for a cotton shirt with stretch.
Subcategories of cotton:
Best for: Year round
Linen shirts are very breathable and are perfect for hot and humid enviornments. They have a tendency to fit loosely and wrinkle easy. They are okay to wear wrinkled, but it's important to note they do give off a casual vibe.
Best for: Summer or hot enviornments
Chambray looks like a denim shirt and is often confused for one. However, Chambray is made out of a plain weave fabric that has a soft and light feel, unlike denim. Chambray is a great option for those who like the look of a denim shirt, but don't want to wear a thick shirt.
Best for: Year round
Exactly what you think: jeans in the shape of a shirt. You can find denim shirts in lightweight or heavy denim, as well as dark and light colors. They fall in the casual category and look great with black jeans.
Best for: Fall, Winter and Spring
Flannel is a thick wool or cotton shirt that is very warm. Don’t be deterred by the lumberjack stereotype, you can find flannel in a non-plaid patterns.
Best for: Cold weather
Wool button downs are best in class when it comes to fabric. They last a long time, won’t wrinkle easily, and don't absorb odor. You might have heard of Merino wool, which is also a great breathable option, especially for those who sweat a lot.
Best for: Year round
Now that you’ve found “the one”, how do you care for it so you can live happily ever after?
How often should you wash your shirts? Only when they are dirty. This can vary from person to person since some men sweat more than others. If your shirt starts to smell after one wear, that's your answer. However, the less you wash it, the longer you can preserve it.
If your shirt tag says "dry clean only", obey it. If your shirt doesn't say "dry clean only", it's optional. Dry cleaning is the easiest option for those who hate doing laundry and ironing.
If you don't want your shirt to shrink even the slightest, avoid warm and hot water and wash it in cold water only.
Throwing your shirts in the dryer can also cause them to shrink, so avoid the dryer and dry them flat. The dryer in general has a tendency to weaken fabrics, so don’t go too hot if you can’t live without it.
I hear it all the time..."I hate ironing shirts!" Unless you want to be limited to wrinkle-free shirts, which end up mostly being dress shirts, wrinkles are a part of life. But wait... what if I told you there is a magic wand that releases hot steam that you can wave over your shirt and it gets rid of wrinkles? It exists! It’s called a steamer. Get one! Here are a couple to check out: Handheld(good for traveling/takes up less space) orFull Size (easy and quick to use everyday).
While shopping you can keep a look out for shirts that say “wrinkle-free”, however, a majority of these shirts might be dress shirts, so make sure you're getting a button down.
When packing a button down, roll up your shirt to maximize space in your suitcase and avoid heavy wrinkling. If you get a few wrinkles and don’t have access to an iron, hang the shirt in the bathroom while you shower, the steam from the shower can help get rid of some of those wrinkles.
If you love being comfortable and are new to the world of button downs, go for one with stretch. Tug the fabric to see if it stretches.
Have fun with prints and textures. If you are new to button downs, feel free to start with plaids or solids and work your way up. If you're ready to step it up a bit, try dots, woven textures, chambray, or novelty prints.
Different brands fit in different ways and it's helpful to find which ones are made for you. The easiest way to find yours is by trial and error. Source 4 to 6 different brands of shirts and try them in a change room to see how they fit. Keep a look out for "Slim Fit" or "Regular Fit" as well. Once you know which brands and fits work, it'll be easier to add shirts to your wardrobe with minimal effort.
Either measure your body or your favorite shirt and compare the measurements listed online to see if they compare or are close. This is great for people who have trouble finding sleeves or lengths that fit. You will need a tape measurer for this.
Sleeve: Some sleeve measurements start from the base of the neck to the cuff, these measurements are usually in the 30s (i.e. 34). If the measurement is in the 20s (i.e. 26) that means it's measureed from the shoulder seam to the cuff.
Shoulder: Measure from shoulder seam to shoulder seam.
Chest: Measure from underam to underarm.
Length: Measure from where the neck meets the shoulder (right next to the collar) to bottom of shirt.
Denim on denim is a very specific look that some fashion forward guys like to wear. If it makes you cringe and all you think of is a Canadian tuxedo, avoid it. If you want to try it, wear opposite color denim at the top and bottom, for example a darker shirt and lighter jeans.
Congrats, you made it to the end! You're a button down expert now. If you have questions or feel like I missed addressing something, feel free to tell me in the comments. The next step is to check out the other guides. Chinos pair really well with button downs, so check that one out!