Brooks Brothers Introduces Button-Down Shirts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Brooks Brothers, a clothing design and manufacturing company, introduced the innovative button-down collar shirt, changing the style of men’s shirts in the United States and creating a classic item of fashion. The collar design was inspired by the buttoned-collar shirts of English polo players.

Summary of Event

The style of men’s clothing in the United States during the latter years of the Gilded Age, which began during the late nineteenth century, was similar in design to items of apparel worn by Europeans. On both sides of the Atlantic, the men’s fashion industry was influenced by English designers and clothing manufacturers. Cross-Atlantic exchange did little to enhance innovativeness in the cut, color, and fabric of clothing designed, manufactured, or sold in the United States. Brooks Brothers Brooks, John E. Brooks, Henry Sands Shirts Garment industry;shirts [kw]Brooks Brothers Introduces Button-Down Shirts (1896) [kw]Brothers Introduces Button-Down Shirts, Brooks (1896) [kw]Introduces Button-Down Shirts, Brooks Brothers (1896) [kw]Button-Down Shirts, Brooks Brothers Introduces (1896) [kw]Shirts, Brooks Brothers Introduces Button-Down (1896) Brooks Brothers Brooks, John E. Brooks, Henry Sands Shirts Garment industry;shirts [g]United States;1896: Brooks Brothers Introduces Button-Down Shirts[6090] [c]Fashion and design;1896: Brooks Brothers Introduces Button-Down Shirts[6090] [c]Trade and commerce;1896: Brooks Brothers Introduces Button-Down Shirts[6090] [c]Manufacturing;1896: Brooks Brothers Introduces Button-Down Shirts[6090] [c]Business and labor;1896: Brooks Brothers Introduces Button-Down Shirts[6090]

Even though items of men’s apparel extended beyond the basic utilitarian purpose of covering for a naked body into the social realm of status, they were not designed or produced for comfort, practicality, or elegance. Stiff, drab, staid, and durable constituted the standards for the tailoring or mass production of men’s garments and accessories at the end of the nineteenth century.

Change in the men’s clothing industry, unlike that in the world of women’s fashion, rarely occurred and was slow to win acceptance. In 1896, however, Brooks Brothers, a manufacturer and retailer of men’s clothing, quietly but dramatically introduced changes that set aside the physically and emotionally restrictive clothing norms of the past and established a new set of standards based on comfort, quality, and style. The fashion items that Brooks Brothers used to create a new fashion statement were the button-down shirt, or button-down polo shirt; the three-button, soft-shoulder sack suit; and the Scottish Harris tweed sport coat.

The instigator of fashion innovativeness, Brooks Brothers was by 1900 one of America’s premier manufacturers and retailers of men’s clothing. For more than eight decades, the company, not especially known for its design creativity, worked to establish its high rank among men’s clothiers on the bases of quality and service. With the simultaneous marketing of three newly designed items of apparel, Brooks Brothers secured a favored position within the retail trade that it would retain for most of the twentieth century. Although the sack suit and the Harris tweed coat became accepted items of men’s wear, it was the button-down shirt or button-down polo shirt that proved to be one of America’s most significant design and retail successes. Of the three apparel items, it was the button-down shirt that gained over time the label of classic. First worn by political and business leaders, it filtered down into the common culture of American life.

The button-down shirt was the design creation of the grandson of the founder of the Brooks Brothers company, John E. Brooks. Like his grandfather, he had a keen eye for designs that were stylish as well as potentially profitable. While traveling in England in 1900, he attended a polo match and soon became more interested in the garb worn by the players than in the activity on the playing field. Of particular interest to him were the shirts worn by the polo players. He observed that the English polo players used buttons to secure the points of their collars, keeping them from flapping in the wind.

Reasoning that such accoutrements could be adapted to shirts worn by American men, he returned home and submitted a design for a shirt made of cotton, in a number of colors and colored stripes, with an attached, narrow rolled collar that included a button to hold the top of the shirt together and two buttons, one on each side of the shirt, to hold down the flaps of the collar. Company directors approved the idea. They believed that the button-down shirt was marketable, for it filled the need of the American male for garments that were stylish yet functional. They accepted the design for manufacturing and marketing because they considered it a visual representation of the Brooks Brothers philosophy of selling, at a reasonable price, quality merchandise to male customers who valued refined items of apparel.

The button-down-collar shirt was first sold at the Brooks Brothers flagship store in New York City in the fall of 1900. The comfort and tasteful yet subtle styling of the shirt quickly captured the attention of many customers. The button-down shirt quickly was deemed practical by the men who first wore it.

The button-down-collar shirt was, in its initial stage of introduction in 1900 and 1901, a success. It was more comfortable, less restricting, and less troublesome than its predecessors, with its attached, unstarched collar, and it fitted with ease under a suit coat. Furthermore, it held a necktie more securely in place and thus proved to be highly practical, especially for office-type work.

Although the button-down collar was received favorably by many American men, during the first two decades of the new century it was not the sole or the dominant style. The body of most shirts sold in Europe and the United States had been altered during the 1880’s. The shoulder yoke was introduced, along with proportioned sleeves with cuffs that either were curved or were in the French style. Shirt bodies were either white, plain colored, or striped, with collars and cuffs either the same color as the body or white. Most collars were starched and detachable. It was not until about 1930 that the detachable shirt collar was abandoned by the fashion industry.

The body of the button-down shirt was similar to that of most tailored or manufactured shirts sold in 1900 and did not change greatly thereafter. With the introduction of the button-down collar, the body of the shirt was only slightly altered. The original button-down shirt was constructed with a shoulder yoke that was shallower, sleeves that were straighter, and a buttoned front that was plainer. The cuffs of the button-down shirt were left round. The collar and cuffs of the shirt were the same color as the body, and the colors used were the same as for past Brooks Brothers shirts, no different from those used by other clothiers. The innovation came in the collar, which was attached to the shirt body, was narrower, and had its characteristic buttonholes to allow it to be fastened to the shirt body.

The buttons for the button-down shirt were selected carefully by Brooks Brothers. Most were made of seashells, usually with two holes bored for attachment by thread to the shirt. In the United States, by the end of the 1890’s, John F. Boepple had been manufacturing buttons made of freshwater mussel shells harvested from the Mississippi River or its tributaries. Less costly than buttons made from ocean shells, mussel-shell buttons were used particularly in mass-produced, ready-made men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing. Brooks Brothers continued to use the more expensive and more iridescent buttons made from ocean shells. Shirts could be purchased ready-made by the Brooks Brothers factory or could be made by hand.

The introduction of the button-down collar gave rise to a wider acceptance of the four-in-hand tie made in small-patterned or striped silk, which had been introduced in 1890. The bow tie, the ascot, and a large and rather thick four-in-hand knot were all used with high collars; a smaller and less thick tie was needed to accommodate the button-down collar. Consequently, Brooks Brothers scaled the size and thickness of the four-in-hand downward so that it could be used with the button-down collar. In doing so, the company created an elegant neckwear accessory.

Significance

After its introduction to the public in 1900, the button-down shirt remained the biggest seller of all items manufactured and sold by Brooks Brothers. In the modern age of mass production and marketing, other clothiers soon adopted the style.

The shirt’s value soon was recognized by President Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt, Theodore , President Woodrow Wilson, investment banker J. P. Morgan, and members of the Vanderbilt and Astor families. Both Roosevelt’s and Wilson’s inaugural clothing, including suits, shirts, and ties, was furnished by Brooks Brothers. Later, other presidents from Herbert Hoover to John F. Kennedy were Brooks Brothers customers. The cap that President Franklin D. Roosevelt wore was a Brooks Brothers creation.

After World War II, the button-down shirt was the most popular shirt style in America. It became a major component, along with the sack suit, of the Ivy League look of the late 1940’s and 1950’s. Brooks Brothers became a public corporation, passing out of family ownership and operation. It was purchased by Garfinckel’s in 1946; by Allied Corporation in November, 1981; by Campeau Corporation in November, 1986; and by Marks & Spencer in April, 1988. It retained its reputation as a clothier of distinction, however, in part because of its continual sale and marketing of button-down shirts.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ash, Juliet, and Lee Wright, eds. Components of Dress: Design, Manufacturing, and Image-Making in the Fashion Industry. New York: Routledge, 1988. A small, very readable volume. Short chapters on a number of topics, from World War I fashion to influences on dress styles by minorities, are interesting and informative. Includes a picture of workers in a Brooks Brothers factory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, Minn.: Burgess, 1970. Covers fashion history from antiquity to the modern era. Illustrated with reproductions of clothing. The various sections on men’s clothing provide information on the evolution as well as the innovativeness of style.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boucher, François. Twenty Thousand Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment. Rev. ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987. Color plates illustrate fashion from ancient times to the modern era. Reproductions of Impressionist paintings are true to colors of the originals. Includes a helpful, lengthy glossary of fashion terms and items.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Colle, Doriece. Collars, Stocks, Cravats: A History and Costume Dating Guide to Civilian Men’s Neckpieces, 1655-1900. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 1972. Limited in readable material, but many drawings by the author provide precise data on collars, stocks, and cravats that can be used to date costumes and portraits. A general reference work, with illustrations, on styles of neckwear of various eras. Appendix B contains an account of neckpieces in art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. 4th ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002. Discusses men’s and women’s fashions from early antiquity into the twentieth century. Includes lovely black-and-white drawings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schoeffler, O. E., and William Gale. Esquire’s Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Men’s Fashions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973. Informative coverage of men’s fashion up to the early 1970’s. Informative biographical sketches of leading designers. Reproductions of ads, sketches, and drawings, along with inclusion of quotations from primary sources, add effective dimensions to this study. Glossary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tortora, Phyllis G., and Keith Eubank. A Survey of Historic Costume: A History of Western Dress. 4th ed. New York: Fairchild, 2005. Very readable. Begins with the ancient world and covers fashion through the twentieth century. Illustrated, with a thorough bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waugh, Norah. The Cut of Men’s Clothes, 1600-1900. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1964. Informative section on nineteenth century tailoring. Valuable information on the use of pattern blocks and measurement in producing mass-produced clothes. Patterns with measurements of different styles are included. The quotations from primary sources are insightful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yarwood, Doreen. Costume of the Western World: Pictorial Guide and Glossary. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. Illustrations and black-and-white drawings by the author. Concise but valuable glossary of fashion items and terms.

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