You’ve likely heard the terms button-up and button-down regarding your dress shirts.
However, have you ever given thought to what exactly those terms mean, or did you assume they were interchangeable?
Most men believe these are two different ways of saying the same thing.
However, button-up shirts and button-down shirts are very different from each other!
What is a Button-Up Shirt?
A button-up shirt is any shirt with buttons funning up the entire length of the front center of your shirt.
In addition, it includes a button at the collar at the top.
Button-up shirts are your typical dress shirt, the standard shirt that you would wear with a suit. You probably already own at least one!
You usually add a tie to a button-up shirt, but you can make it casual by leaving your collar open instead.
What is a Button-Down Shirt?
Button-down shirts are remarkably similar. They also have buttons running down the entire length of the shirt in the center.
The most significant difference is in the shirt collar style. Button-down shirts have small buttons at the collar points so that you can button down your collar.
The addition of these tiny buttons on the button-down collar shirt arose as a form of function, not a style choice.
In the 1860s, British polo players had difficulty preventing their shirt collars from flying up into their faces as they rode their horses, so they added these buttons on the collar to help them play better.
Thus began the “polo collar shirts” a.k.a. the button-down shirt style.
These collars remained a feature of athletic shirts for a long time, but they ultimately became mainstream.
Today you can wear this type of shirt nearly interchangeably with button-up shirts, with a few exceptions.
Button-Up vs. Button-Down: Differences Explained
So, in the end, are these two shirts all that different?
The answer is a resounding, “Of course they are!”
As in all men’s fashion, even the most minor details can have the most significant impact.
The particulars of any shirt style can affect the level of formality. It can also influence what other attire you can wear with this type of shirt.
How Collars Differ From Each Other
The buttons aren’t the only difference between the collars of these two types of shirts. The collar stiffness is another difference.
Button-down shirts usually have softer, more pliant collars. These relaxed collars are part of what makes a button-down shirt the more casual of the two options.
On the other hand, button-up shirt collars are often stiffer and more starched. They do a fine job of standing up on their own, adding to their formality.
Button-down shirts are excellent for smart casual wear partly because you can open the collar for a relaxed look, using the two collar buttons to help it stay upright.
The upright collar prevents the button-down shirt from looking sloppy and veering firmly into the realm of “very casual.”
Which One is More Formal?
The button-up shirt is the more formal of these two shirts. Without the buttons at the collar, it has a more simplified look.
The more formal looks are always clean and fresh, with minimal extraneous detailing.
The stiffness of the button-up shirt’s collar is another factor in making this a more formal shirt.
There is hardly ever anything relaxed about dressing up, and a dress shirt should never sag or droop in any area.
When to Wear Button-Up or Button-Down Shirt
You can wear button-up shirts nearly any time. They are perfect for formal occasions, including tuxedos and formal suits.
You can wear them with any suit, even your most casual ones (business casual or smart casual).
You don’t even need a suit for a button-up shirt; you can wear it in a more relaxed manner to dress up a pair of chinos or nice jeans.
Button-down shirts are a perfect pairing with casual suits. You can wear button-downs in a business casual setting or a social event that isn’t formal.
The button-down shirt is also a great fit with separates, such as trousers and a blazer, to give that smart-casual look. It will help keep your outfit looking laid-back and not at all stuffy.
How to Wear Button-Up and Button-Down Shirts with a Suit
Both shirt styles can be worn with great effect with the right suit. However, whichever shirt you choose will subtly alter your look.
The first step in your approach should be to ensure that your suit is appropriate for the occasion. Is it going to fit the formality of the event you are dressing for?
Then determine if you will wear a tie; this may also influence which shirt you choose.
Finally, remember that the color of your shirt is also a deciding factor in whether your shirt is the right one.
Button-Up Shirt for Formal Events
Button-up shirts were designed to be formal, so they will be a natural choice for your dressiest occasions.
White is the most formal color for dress shirts; if you have some wiggle room on the formality, you may choose a pale color like blue or pink to stand out.
But remember, anything other than white will be less dressy.
A formal occasion is an excellent opportunity to wear a button-up shirt with French cuffs. These are the most formal cuffs and are very dashing-looking.
However, they’re only suitable for formal affairs or perhaps the most professional business suits.
These are an excellent opportunity to add more flair to your outfit with cuff links.
Button-Down Collar for Business Casual
Since button-down collar shirts are naturally casual, they are a logical pairing with business casual suits. They’ll keep your suit grounded and slightly less formal.
There’s often been great debate over whether a tie is appropriate with a button-down collar shirt.
The tradition says that ties aren’t proper with a button-down collar, but that’s been changing recently.
Ties may not be encouraged with button-down collars, but I say that if you’re wearing the right dress shirt fabric and color, go for it. Just be sure to button up the collar, too.
If you decide to opt out of the tie, you can still button your collar to the top for a restrained style.
This look is recently becoming trendy; just be sure you are also wearing a jacket with it!
You may also leave the top button open and lean into the relaxed and casual nature of the shirt.
Button-Ups vs. Button-Downs FAQs
No matter how you choose to wear a dress shirt, it’s best to adhere to some simple rules and guidelines. So before you go, here’s a quick round-up and last little words of wisdom.
Which one is more formal – button-up or button-down collar?
Button-ups are the more formal of the options. You can wear it for your most dressy occasions.
On the other hand, the button-down shirt gives a more casual look and is never appropriate attire for formal wear.
Why do button-down shirts have buttons on the collar?
Back when people still dressed up even to play sports, polo players in England got tired of their collars flying up into their faces and blocking their vision as they played.
So they solved their own problem by attaching buttons to keep their collars down. Little did they know they’d be starting a new fashion movement!
Are button-down shirts considered casual?
They are indeed seen as more informal than button-up shirts, yes. However, that doesn’t mean they are strictly casual. You can dress up your button-down collar shirts with a well-fitting suit.
Can I wear a button-up shirt for business casual?
You can absolutely wear a button-up shirt for business casual. This shirt is amazingly versatile, transitioning easily from formal to smart casual; everything in between these two extremes is fair game.
Can button-down shirts be buttoned up?
Yes. Nearly all button-down shirts button up to the collar. You can choose to button every button even if you aren’t wearing a tie; it creates quite a different aesthetic from an open collar.
Do I always have to button the collar buttons?
You aren’t required to button down the collar buttons, but I highly recommend it. Leaving those buttons undone may look careless. Besides, those buttons are there for a reason; use them!
Can I wear a tie with a button-down shirt?
A tie isn’t traditional with button-down shirts, but it’s becoming more commonplace.
As long as you aren’t attempting to wear your button-down shirt formally, you can undoubtedly add a tie for a casually dressed-up style.
Hi, I’m Alex, and I’ve studied and specialized in styling in Rome. Through my writing, I want to help men dress well and learn the purpose and significance of suits and other formal attire. My final goal is to make men more confident in their wardrobe choice and life in general.