In the past the topic of wearing a button down collar with a suit has come up multiple times in conversations with friends. Most recently last week while out and about in Philadelphia. My friend, a third year law student, is looking to bolster his wardrobe for the career he is about to begin. So understandably, this is a topic he has been pondering on. I have also been thinking much on the subject while reading Jesse’s tell-all on OCBDs over at Put This On. Jesse also wrote about wearing a button down with a suit, but I slightly disagree with him, as I am more of a proponent of the combination.
My friend said that he had heard that it is not appropriate to wear a button down with a suit, but he did not seem convinced either way. So I went into my usual diatribe in favor of the pairing. I don’t remember the word for word but the gist was as such (with a few things added and/or taken away):
A button down shirt, whether it be oxford cloth or not, paired with a suit is a fine combination. It is traditional and it is American. The button down collar as we know it, although originated by Brooks Brothers and thus sold primarily to the upper class, is now a shirt that transcends socio-economic boundaries. It is a combination worn by our fathers, our father’s fathers and some of the great men’s style icons like Gianni Agnelli and Fred Astaire; Fred would even wear them with a double breasted jacket. Legends.
I would imagine the reason you heard that the pairing is unacceptable would be one of two things. First, the source was not American, but probably from Europe or elsewhere where the combination would be much less prevalent or non-existant. Second, perhaps the person was thinking in terms of formality. The button down collar is the least formal dress shirt, which one could argue is too casual to wear with a suit, especially a more formal suit like one with pinstripes. Sound logic, I suppose. But this is America we’re talking about and Americans love button down collars. Shit, I even wear a button down with a tux sometimes.
Great blog. I must dissent, at least in part. A button down collar with an informal suit is fine. An oxford with a tweed suit? Classic professorial cool. Button down collar with linen? James Bond in Cuba.
But if you are a lawyer: never, ever wear a button down collar under your suit in court. You will look like an ambulance chaser, and be treated as such by any Judge who knows how a good lawyer dresses.
Thank you for the kind words. I can’t say I’ve ever heard the lawyer thing, I believe I have seen a few reputable attorneys rock button downs. Do you think it is a regional thing? Perhaps what you say holds true outside the northeast?
I know I’m responding to an old post, but I agree with your post 99% of the way.
I think there are a few, very few, exceptions where a button down is not quite formal enough. I think it depends on the location and prestige of the job. Randall says lawyers would never wear a button down in court, but I think that depends on where you are and what type of lawyer. In the Northeast, I agree. Ultra-high profile (anything on the national media) or high-end (mergers/acquisitions) would probably also be an exception to this rule. But a normal lawyer in the mid-west or south? They would be fine with a button-down. Investment bankers/hedge fund guys might not be taken seriously amongst their peers if they had an OCBD with a suit.
I also think age might have something to do with it. If someone in their early 30s is gunning for a CEO position and wears a button down with a suit it might seem sloppy or lazy, or that he lacks attention to detail. But no one thinks twice when Warren Buffet wears a button down (which he does).
However, for the vast majority of people (in the Unites States) in the vast majority of situations a button down is acceptable with a suit.
I am writing a dress guide for summer associates, I actually think it is the opposite. To me lawyers dress better in small Texas towns than in small northeast towns–in the big city everyone dresses the same.
I think this is because Texans go to church from a young age (every Sunday morning, Sunday night if the Cowboys are not playing, and Wednesday night) they see people at church wearing nice conservative suits. This is something that spans across socio-economic, cultural, and ethnic lines.
It was very rare that I see button down collars worn with suits–unless it is an elementary aged boy–whose parents probably were saving money by buying school uniform button down shirts, because they are cheaper and kids grow out of them so quick.
Most lawyers in big cities whether it is the northeast, out in California, or in Texas dress about the same. Most wear suit jackets 1 size too big or small, most of the suits are of Mens Warehouse quality, most shirts are white or blue, and most wear rubber soled shoes that look like Allen Edmund Park Avenues but are much more comfortable.
It is the small cities where the really big differences stand out.
In the NORTHEAST you see lawyers wearing: J Press jackets in red or green, blue blazers with nantucket red trousers, grosgrain watch straps on LL Bean field watches, George H.W. Bush socks, and Bass Weejuns to court.
In TEXAS you see: black roper style boots, American flag lapel pins, and huge gold Rolexes that rappers and oil sheiks wouldn’t be caught dead in.
What I never see in Texas are brightly colored shirts, button down collars, or silly hats like fedoras (some old timers still wear cowboy hats–they get a pass in my book.)
I think that for the most part, people in the Bible belt are just more comfortable wearing suits and know what is appropriate because of the influence of church in the south.
Bull shit! The only suit to be worn with a button down collar is a summer seersucker or poplin. It’s a SPORT SHIRT for god’s sake. Look at the finely dressed British. No button down. Show some class!
Tell that to your grandfather – he likely more one with a suit every day of the work week.
It goes without saying that a judge may hold your shirt collar against you (no pun intended) or your client, but that means that he isn’t a GOOD judge.
It’s only the young, insecure lawyers who fret about their clothes.
“A button down shirt, whether it be oxford cloth or not, paired with a suit is a fine combination. It is traditional and it is American.”
I think this is spot on.
Personally I rarely wear button down collars with suits, but when you consider that the white oxford button down with a gray or blue suit was worn almost exclusively by men in the 50s, its hard to say it’s wrong. Lawyers (I’m one) don’t have special rules. Some of the best lawyers I’ve worked with wear nothing but because they don’t want to take the time to worry about matching their shirt and tie.
As an attorney with 12 years of experience, both as a federal prosecutor and in corporate law, I can say that wearing a button down collar shirt (I would suggest broadcloth for a touch more formality) in the courtroom is not only acceptable (I’ve seen rainmakers in 3K suits with button down collars) but preferable if you’re trying to look like the all american stand-up guy.
Thanks for sharing!
You must not be a good lawyer. Button down shorts are fine. Move on. You’re wrong.
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Button down collar + suit just screams “accountant”. In fact, button down collar + anything else basically screams “accountant” or non-NYC corporate management. It’s a sorry state of affairs that the button downs have crept into the C-level.
Every time I see a button down collar my Armani, Burberry, and bespoke suits shed a tear.
The Oxford cloth button down shirt is quintessentially American. A well tailored suit with a button down collar shirt (preferably BB) and some Aldens is the essence of traditional American business attire. This look can be pulled off by men who appreciate nuanced Americana and transcend nouveau preening and Eurocentrism. The type of guy who can launch a long tight spiral, is at ease at a Harkness table, and excels naturally through competitive drive and innate talent. Guys who were young and irresponsible when they were young and irresponsible, never saw h harm in a gentleman’s C, appreciate time in the country, and value certain institutions.
Button down collars on a dress shirt are ugly as hell. Whether it’s technically ‘smart’ enough or not is made irrelevant by the fact it just looks terrible, and shows poor judgement.