So you know, button down shirts? The shirts that style experts deem to be wardrobe staples despite the fact that they only fit and flatter a small portion of the population? Turns out that many of you hate ‘em. Like, with the fire of a thousand suns. Because they really, truly don’t work for women with large breasts*, and can look a mess on plus-sized women and apple figures, and they’re a pain in the ass to maintain, and they just don’t GO with the lifestyles of toddler moms, fitness instructors, or art teachers.
Not to sound like a broken record, but if you hate something, do not wear it. Doesn’t matter who says it’s a must-have or a classic piece. Screw it. You do not need a button-down shirt to be a stylish woman. As I’ve said many times, everything in the world of style is subject to taste, perception, desire, need. You know yourself better than anyone else, and you get to decide. Period.
But if you can find button-down styles that work for your bod and are curious about some non-boring ways to wear and style them, read on.
WHY THEY’RE GOOD
Button-down shirts are a canvas. Like many items that are deemed “wardrobe staples,” they require some stylistic input from their wearer to look interesting, flattering, and fun. Throw on a button-down shirt with a pair of black slacks and you’ll have an outfit that is staid and lifeless. Even if the shirt is in a bright, flattering color! If you want to wear this item and wear it well, it’s gonna take some work.
So, you’re saying, “Great, Sal. I’m sold. A piece of clothing that’s hard to fit and takes effort to style? I’m gonna wear mine EVERY DAY.”
And I’m saying, “Whoa, Nellie, tone down the sarcasm!”
Yes, button-downs take work. But the reason they make those “basics” lists year after year is because they make a great canvas.
A woman wearing a white tee with a scarf slung around her neck looks cool. A woman wearing a white button-down with a scarf slung around her neck looks chic. A woman wearing a long-sleeved tee under her sweater looks casual. A woman wearing a button-down under her sweater looks sophisticated. These shirts contribute lines and angles, depth and texture to any ensemble in a way that simple knits never can. Since they are seldom worn by children or teens – unless a part of a much-loathed school uniform – they broadcast messages of adulthood, stylistic refinement, worldliness. And, on some level, the observer KNOWS that you put effort into your ensemble simply by including a button-down, so you get credit for your work upfront.
Button-down shirts take effort – to wear and to maintain. But the payoff is that they up your fashionability. Just ask any French lady.
HOW TO WEAR THEM
As I mentioned above, a button-down and a pair of pants is NOT a complete outfit. But there are some very simple elements you can add to make your ensemble feel pulled-together and evolved.
I’m a big fan of belting my button-downs. This simple, skinny belt makes all the difference in this outfit: Without it, my top half is a wash of boring, and my waist undefined. I also love belting button-downs using scarves. Soft cloth as a belting element is fun and flattering, especially if stiff leather or metal belts cut into your midsection.
While the combination garments that have a fake button-down peeking out from beneath a sweater or sweater vest horrify me for unknown reasons, I love the look of a real button-down worn beneath a knitted garment. ESPECIALLY if that knitted garment is bright, wildly patterned, or otherwise funky. A button-down as a base-layer can look dowdy and old-fashioned, but if it’s serving as a base-layer for something edgy and outrageous, balance is struck.
A patterned button-down can serve as a pseudo-blazer, especially if it’s constructed from thick cloth and has some shaping at the waistline. This look is fantastic for summer, when an actual blazer might have you sweating buckets.
Now my looks are still relatively simple and conservative. So let’s turn to my girl Audi of Fashion for Nerds for some richer, more daring button-down-based outfits.
Here, Audi has paired her shirt with a fitted waistcoat. Button-downs can make the small of boob appear completely flat, but this little vest mitigates that effect quite tidily. It also defines Audi’s waist and draws the eye right to it, since it’s the darkest part of the outfit. She balances the innate conservatism of the shirt and waistcoat with skinny jeans and cowboy boots, creating a fantastically funky overall look.
And finally, a button-down with a sheer element. How fun is THIS? And I realize you might not have that exact gauzy v-neck vest in your wardrobe, but hey. Try a button-down as the base-layer for any sheer over-layer. Contrasting stiff, opaque, and conservative with supple, translucent, and sensual creates a daring, compelling look every time.
Notice how neither of us looks remotely preppy? Weird, right? Aren’t button-downs a staple of prep-wear? Why, yes they are. If you’re interested in going that route, check out Shade Clothing‘s “One Shirt, Seven Days” project for some J.Crew-esque button-down-centric looks. I stole the header graphic from them, and they have some darling suggestions.
WHERE TO BUY ‘EM
I get all of my button-downs from three places: Banana Republic, Gap, and Ann Taylor. The end. I need shirts with defined waistlines/princess seams, a lot of stretch, and durability. I am HARD on my button-downs. Land’s End and L.L. Bean are too boxy, Old Navy and Target are too flimsy, and J.Crew aren’t stretchy enough.
However, I have only ever shopped for myself. If you’re a button-down wearer, please, please, pleeeeeease chime in and tell us where you shop AND your figure. I’d love to know where to get shirts that work for apple-shaped women, petites, tall women, and plusses.
Button-downs ain’t easy, and they ain’t for everyone. But if you’re willing to wrangle them a bit, they can add depth, sophistication, and polish to your personal style.
At least, that’s my opinion. Are you convinced? How do YOU make your button-downs sing? What do you pair them with in terms of accessories and layers? Where do you buy ‘em? How do you care for ‘em? Or are you staunchly against them, now and for life?