The Oxford cloth button down, better known as the OCBD, is the quintessential American shirt. Versatile beyond belief, it just skirts the line between formal and casual. Almost every single clothing brand in existence has its own take on the OCBD, and I personally wear one about 95% of the time. In every color and pattern imaginable, Americans wear them on the weekends just as quickly as they do under suits. And yet, few know where this clothing staple comes from. What is the history of the illustrious Oxford cloth button down?
Let’s start with the first part of the acronym; Oxford cloth. The origins of such cloth are rather obscure, so bear with me. The story goes that at the end of the 19th century, an old Scottish clothing mill—the name itself has been lost to the sands of time—produced different clothing fabrics for the world’s four most prestigious universities at the time: Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale. What happened to the other three fabrics is a mystery. What we do know, however, is that the Oxford cloth, simultaneously rough and durable yet comfortable, endured the test of time and continues up to the present. But it would take a while before the Oxford fabric would be paired with its natural counterpart: the button down.
Our story continues with the visit of John E. Brooks (grandson of the founder of Brooks Brothers) to England in 1896. During his visit, he noticed that English polo players had buttons on the collars of their shirts to keep them held down during games. He was enthralled with the idea, and decided to take it back to the United States. Searching for a suitable fabric to combine his button down collar with, Brooks stumbled across Oxford cloth and the OCBD was born. Produced by Brooks Brothers in the United States, it immediately took off in popularity. However, it was viewed as a fairly formal shirt up until the late 20’s and early 30’s, when tennis players began to wear the shirt during games due to its practicality. The Oxford cloth is cool enough to let the player breath, but durable enough to stand up to constant wear. The button down collar helped it stay in place rather than flapping around, just like its purpose for polo. With this knock in its formality, the OCBD really took off.
As the ad above from 1929 shows, the OCBD was gaining popularity with the crowd that would eventually catapult the shirt to the mainstream: Ivy League Undergraduates. Students at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and other Ivy Leagues adopted the OCBD as their own, and it was ubiquitous from the 1930’s onwards on each campus. The OCBD fit in perfectly with the “Ivy League Look” that the undergraduates had cultivated; it was formal enough to not raise eyebrows, but casual enough to give off an air of nonchalance the students craved. By the mid 50’s, nobody would be caught dead at their school without wearing an OCBD in any one of the myriad colors it came in. Most popular were white and blue, followed by pink and then yellow (all pastels, of course).
By the time of the Ivy Look’s fall from grace in 1967, the OCBD had reached cultural saturation; it was no longer connected to any one style and was simply a mainstay of any man’s wardrobe. Nowadays, the OCBD can be worn with essentially anything. Dress it up with a tie and blazer, or throw it on with a pair of jeans for a relaxed look. Whatever the occasion (within reason), an OCBD is a sure bet to look good.