A Brief History of the Oxford Cloth Button-Down (OCBD) Shirt
By most accounts, the Oxford cloth button-down shirt (or OCBD for short) should be one of those garments too loaded with negative connotations to ever be cool. It’s unimaginative; just a shirt with a collar that’s, well, buttoned down. It’s somehow still middle-aged, even when that concept seems diminishing. It’s so very middle-management, so middle of the road, so… middling. And then you see an old still of Paul Newman in a pair of khakis and an Oxford shirt and that entire, misguided perception of the button-down just… melts… away.
Paul Newman in a pair of khakis and an Oxford cloth button-down shirt
OK, so the button-down shirt is not, in design terms, in any way revolutionary. Originally it was called a polo shirt – because polo players wore it, back when sportsmen really knew how to dress to play – before tennis and the pique shirt stole its name. Ironically, polo players then started wearing that instead. The Oxford shirt’s revolutionary idea was to button down the collar to stop it flapping up in the rider’s face – hence, perhaps less confusingly, it later also being referred to as a polo collar shirt.
Brooks Brothers – ‘The Original Polo Shirt’
It took one John Brooks in 1896 to see the Oxford shirt’s true potential. Here was a shirt that, due precisely to this collar design, managed to look smart without the need for a tie, yet quite capable of taking one when required. Brooks just happened to be the grandson of the founder of Brooks Brothers. He promptly snaffled the idea and America’s most important menswear retailer made the button-down shirt its own. Indeed, the button-down became one of the core garments of preppy, Ivy League style – arguably the most influential look in modern-day menswear history.
A Brooks Brothers advert of yesteryear featuring its Oxford cloth button-down shirt
Famous Oxford Shirt Wearers
To say that over the next half century or so men of influence took to the OCBD would be an understatement. Clark Gable, who had a 44-inch chest and a 32-inch waist in his prime, was generally unable to wear ready-to-wear clothing except the Brooks Brothers button-down shirt, which he promptly did, day in, day out. John F. Kennedy wore it too, helping to make him the first style icon with his finger on both the fashion and nuclear buttons.
Chet Baker and Miles Davis – both outfitted for fame in Charlie Davidson’s The Andover Shop, the mecca of preppy – both took to button-downs like Charlie Parker to the trumpet. Miles would wear it in his own way: with a knotted handkerchief tucked into the open collar. Gianni Agnelli, of the family behind Fiat, wore his with the collar buttons undone, a fun affectation echoed by the menswear designer Thom Browne. When Andy Warhol wasn’t in a black polo neck sweater – which has nothing much at all to do with polo – he was in a polo collar shirt.
Gianni Agnelli, of the family behind Fiat, wearing his Oxford cloth button-down shirt, with the collar buttons undone
British Style Tribes & The Oxford Cloth Button-Down Shirt
Running through this litany of stylish men, of course, are defining style movements that also adopted the Oxford shirt. Mods wore button-down shirts, showing how it worked with skinny mohair suits and parkas. Later, Skinheads did so too, proving it worked with jeans, boots and braces. Fans of Northern Soul also wore them, with dancers at the legendary Twisted Wheel club having them re-tailored with short sleeves, all the better to move and sweat in.
These British style tribes, however, would not have been wearing Brooks Brothers, whether the company claimed to have ‘invented’ the shirt style or not. Rather, over here in the UK the appeal of the button-down was powered by Ben Sherman.
Skinheads wearing Ben Sherman Oxford cloth button-down shirts with jeans, boots and braces
The Ben Sherman OCBD
The company founder was no stranger to the US himself. Arthur Benjamin Sugarman, born in 1925 in Brighton, travelled across America during the post-World War Two war years as salesman, waiter and tobacco picker, coming home having given himself an ‘Americanised’ version of his surname. When he found himself in charge of a shirt line owned by his clothing manufacturer father-in-law, he was determined to introduce a few upgrades.
A softer roll collar with a higher second button, so it sat less open when worn (as it always was) with the top button undone, a factor crucial to Skinhead interest; a box pleat and hanging loop; a button at the back of the collar; breast pocket; and placket front, which was a rarity back then. And, while American cloths were still used, it came in bright colours and bold patterns.
The Small Faces, The Who, The Animals… they all wore Sherman’s shirts. As did, later, The Specials, The Undertones, The Buzzcocks, Squeeze and Madness.
Oxford Shirt Styling Tips
This is not to say the button-down collar has not appeared in places it shouldn’t have. Whatever happened at the Wheel, short-sleeved versions still smack of Mormonism, though somehow looked hard-as-nails on the buzz-cut and skinny-tied men of Mission Control during the moon landings. The collar style should not appear on anything that smacks of Hawaii, or anything made of polyester or silk.
In fact, plain or gently striped Oxford cloth – hard wearing, improving with age, trans-seasonal – is nearly always the best choice. On the plus side, the button-down shirt looks superb layered over a white T-shirt, worn done up or completely undone. It’s one the few shirts styles, due to the weight of the cloth, that also looks at home under a heavy sweater or a denim jacket. And it works just as well in a smart casual outfit with chinos or jeans as a suit (with or without tie) for business casual. What at first seems a little dull turns out to be a garment that will take you just about anywhere.
- The collar style should not appear on anything ‘Hawaii’.
- Or anything made of polyester or silk.
- Plain or gently striped Oxford cloth only.
- Hard wearing.
- Improving with age.
So, here’s a rule of thumb to live your (stylish) life by, to pass down onto your (stylish – and they better be) sons. It doesn’t matter if you’re meeting kings or going to the park, whether it’s deepest winter or high summer – when in doubt wear a plain white or pale blue Oxford cloth button-down shirt. It may have shades of ‘middle’ about it, but when it comes to provenance, among shirts it’s master of all.
How to Wear an OCBD Shirt
Boglioli Unstructured Stretch Cotton And Linen-Blend Suit Jacket, £600 at MR PORTER >
Drake’s Easyday Slim-Fit Button-Down Collar Cotton Oxford Shirt in White, £135 at DRAKE’S >
Boglioli Storm-Blue Stretch Cotton And Linen-Blend Suit Trousers, £250 at MR PORTER >
Crockett & Jones Boston Dark Brown Country Calf Grain Loafers, £395 at CROCKETT & JONES >
Reigning Champ Loopback Cotton-Jersey Sweatshirt in Grey, £125 at MR PORTER >
Drake’s Easyday Slim-Fit Button-Down Collar Cotton Oxford Shirt in Blue, £135 at DRAKE’S >
Mr P. Slim-Fit Selvedge Denim Jeans, £180 at MR PORTER >
Common Projects Original Achilles Low: White, £315 at TRUNK CLOTHIERS >