Career Notes: The Button-Down Shirt

The classic, preppy, button-down shirt - the defining garment of the American male and a staple of The Gap - is almost a century old. Collars were first buttoned on to shirts in 1900 when John Brooks of Brooks Brothers had the bright idea of adapting the shirts worn by English polo players for everyday wear - collars were buttoned down to stop them flapping around during play. Today, Brooks Brothers on Madison Avenue in New York still sell the benchmark button-down shirt, with prices starting from $48 (pounds 32). Unfortunately, you have to cross the Atlantic to buy one.

For a more accessible, still authentically American name in button-downs, you need only travel to your nearest major department store. Arrow, the makers of the shirt that according to a 1938 advert gave you instant access to "the world's best-dressed fraternity", sells over 30 million shirts each year. The best-seller in the range is the classic button-down at pounds 39.95. The company was one of the first to see the potential of the button- down collar outside of America and brought it to Europe in the Fifties so that every man could have that fresh-faced Ivy League look.

The thing about the button-down shirt (and a button on the back of the collar was something to really drool over) was that it looked great worn with a tie pulled down and the top button of your shirt undone. Think Frank Sinatra after a hard night out on the tiles in the Fifties, Chet Baker in a short-sleeved summer version, or Art Blakey, collars looped just right over a sharp tie.

Nowadays, the button-down collar is as commonplace as any other kind of shirt collar and the connotations of preppies and sharp-suited jazz musicians are no longer in most men's minds as they queue up at the cash desk in Marks & Spencer's.

John Symons of J Symons in Covent Garden, London, gets hot under the collar at the mere mention of a button-down. He has been selling them since 1964. "It has become increasingly difficult to find the product we want," he says.

These days there is little respect for the history of the shirt: buttons are almost an afterthought - too high up and too large; collars are not set correctly and even sleeves can play a part in the balance of the perfect shirt. Mr Symons describes many of the modern-day button-collar shirts as "pretty matter-of-fact" affairs, not at all appropriate for the "man of some experience with certain sensibilities who has an international subliminal awareness of how things should look".

The current offerings at J Symons are made by the American company Sero (pounds 45) and the French label Hartford (pounds 69-89). In the heyday of B-Ds, between 1945-65, every shirt company in the States had it right, according to Symons. But they wrecked their own product when they started to replicate the European version. And he should know - he has just written an in-depth piece on the button-down shirt for American mail-order company, Lands End, whose shirts at pounds 19.50 are, he says, "an honest product".

Ralph Lauren is one designer who still sticks to the button-down collar rules. His is a soft shirt with tiny pearl buttons on the tips of the collars. With prices ranging from pounds 65 to pounds 160, they are not cheap. But a button-down is not just a shirt - it's a way of life.

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