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Sunday, April 06, 2008

The button down: shirt or personality?

By Dick Hirsch

I went to a meeting recently where I encountered an old friend, a man I hadn’t seen in years. He remembered me, looked me over and said:

“I see you’re still buttoned down.”

How right he was. The button down shirt has been standard in my closet for years. The blue button down has always predominated and I even remember the acquisition of my first one. My father bought it for me when I was still in high school. I remember asking him the purpose of those two extra buttons holding down the points of the collar. He thought about it for a moment and his reply was something like this:

“I suppose it is to keep your tie from getting out from under the collar, but the real reason is that it is just a fashion style.”

I’ll agree with that. Button downs weren’t very prominent at my high school but when I arrived on a small New England college campus a couple of years later I immediately noticed that they were a standard. The most popular outfit was the button down shirt, usually blue or white, but occasionally pink or yellow, either tucked in or hanging out, with khaki pants. I never totally adopted that look, but I’ve been wearing the button down shirts ever since---both dress shirts and sport shirts---to the virtual exclusion of other collar styles.

Now I am wondering whether it is time for a change. After all these years I’ve concluded that the term has entered the language as the definition of a personal style or group of characteristics, a type that I don’t believe accurately represents my personality. The American Heritage Dictionary says button down, or buttoned down, in addition to being a shirt style, describes a person who is a conformist, “conservative, conventional or unimaginative.” Not that there is anything inherently wrong with any of those terms; they are just qualities I never aspired to have used to describe me. (Of course, I realize it has been said that we are the worst judges of the image we transmit.)

I noticed years ago that button down shirts seem to be exclusively American. The credit for creating the shirt style is generally given to Brooks Brothers, which first sewed on those extra buttons on and began selling them in 1896. You don’t see them in Europe, not in England, and certainly not in France, Italy or Germany. The only people seen wearing button down shirts in Europe---and I suppose that is also true of South America and Asia---are tourists from the US. There was a time when it was easy to spot another American in Europe because they were walking around in sneakers. That hasn’t been true in years because sneakers long ago seized the international market. Now the most reliable clue is to check the collar style of the men; if they are wearing a button down, you may be sightseeing in a place like Bucharest or Barcelona, but the shirt you are seeing is being worn by a man from someplace like Wheeling or Wichita.

I do have another reason for concern about whether the shirt is still stylish. I’ve been watching more TV than usual recently, mostly because of the presidential campaign. I saw no candidate of either party with a button down shirt. Whether wearing a tie or striving for informality with an open collar, all the shirts had straight collars. The same applies to the national and local anchormen, the so-called experts, the pollsters, the TV reporters, and the celebrity endorsers.

I interrogated a local authority, recognized as a leading haberdasher with a sharp eye for fashion trends, who emphasized that button down shirts are still big sellers, but much less dressy than straight collar shirts. He said any wardrobe without straight collars is incomplete, and further reported a resurgence in interest in French cuffs and cufflinks. He recommended that I stop at the store as soon as possible and stock up.

It was a sincere invitation, but I don’t know whether I am ready for that. For someone with my history, it could be a life changing experience, forever altering my self concept as well as my public image. Would I still qualify as buttoned down? But do I want to be buttoned down, with its connotation of conformity? I am not yet ready to answer either of those questions, but I sure would like to be imaginative.


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