The term ‘essential’ is thrown around more than dice on the Las Vegas strip. You only have to look at the fact that there’s an album called Bon Jovi: The Essentials for evidence of that.
However, one piece to which the term has been correctly applied for more than 120 years is the Oxford shirt.
Sitting alongside a well-fitting navy suit, a selection of white T-shirts and selvedge denim in the menswear hall of fame, the OCBD (that’s ‘Oxford cloth button-down’ to the uninitiated) is one of the few key sartorial building blocks guaranteed never to fall from favour.
Bought in classic shades of sky blue, pink and white, an Oxford shirt has the ability to add a casual lean to an otherwise formal outfit or dress up a relaxed chinos and sneakers combination.
“It’s truly one of the most versatile and timeless pieces a man can have in his wardrobe,” says Chris Gove, creative director of British menswear brand Percival. “An Oxford shirt can slot easily under a summer suit, or over a plain T-shirt; be fitted or slightly oversized; worn with the sleeves down to the wrists or rolled up, and in every case, it never looks out of place.”
It’s no overstatement to say that the OCBD is as near as you’ll get to the ultimate wardrobe cornerstone. But in case you needed further convincing, here’s everything you need to know about this menswear essential.
What Is An Oxford Shirt?
Softer in its construction than a stiff dress shirt, and a tad more formal than your weekend flannel, the Oxford shirt is a solid, fail-safe option when you’re attempting to bridge the treacherous gap dividing smart and casual.
While the merits of owning an OCBD (or five) may come as no surprise, what might is that this staple has little to do with the English city with which it shares its name. In fact, the moniker is taken from the fact that it’s made exclusively from a thick, woven fabric known as Oxford cloth.
“Oxford cotton is created by weaving the cotton yarn in a certain way giving a textured rather than smooth finish,” explains Jermyn Street shirtmaker Emma Willis. “There are different types, starting with the classic Oxford, then the finer Prince Oxford, which has a slight sheen and more conspicuous weave.”
Despite often being referred to as an Oxford cloth button-down, not all are finished with a collar that fastens to the shirt. Those that do are inherently more casual, but smarter styles (most of which use collar stays to maintain their shape) still qualify as Oxford shirts if they’re cut from the right cloth.
History Of The Oxford Shirt
The Oxford shirt can be traced back to 19th century Scotland, where local mills were experimenting with different weaves and producing original fabrics. Four of these new types of cloth were named after the most prestigious universities of the day: Yale, Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford.
While the other three have since faded into sartorial obscurity, Oxford cloth has stood the test of time. This is thanks in no small part to Brooks Brothers, the oldest men’s clothing brand in the US.
In 1896, John E. Brooks noticed how English polo players pinned their collars down to keep them from flapping up during matches. Inspired by this, Brooks set about developing a shirt that used buttons to carry out the same task. The result was the Oxford shirt as we know it today and the end of the previous practice of men buying their shirts and collars separately.
Brooks Brothers early Oxford shirt catalogue
However, it didn’t take long for the OCBD to gallop off the playing field, no doubt due to the fact that it looked equally at home paired with a tie and jacket as it did on horseback.
The style hit its peak in the mid-20th century when Oxford shirts were adopted by the preppy Ivy League set on America’s east coast and later Vespa-riding mods in the UK. “When I think of button-down Oxfords, I tend to think of Ben Sherman and the 1960s,” says Christopher Mundy of Jermyn Street’s Budd Shirts. “It became a keen look for many, as a fashion.”
From there on out, the Oxford shirt never went away – and given what a versatile piece of kit it is, it’s unlikely that it ever will.
Why Do You Need An Oxford Shirt?
In a word: versatility. The Oxford shirt has an unparalleled ability to blend into any setting and as part of almost any dress code. You could just as easily wear one to a formal event as you could down the pub. There aren’t many items of clothing you can say that about.
“It works well with a button-down collar and button cuff, but also looks great worn open, with a traditional collar and button cuff,” says Willis. “The Oxford has become [even more] popular as men do not have to dress so formally all the time and it converts so well from suit to jeans.”
How To Wear An Oxford Shirt For Different Dress Codes
Whether you’re suiting up for a work meeting or cobbling together a casual outfit for the weekend, getting dressed is made infinitely easier with a selection of Oxford shirts to hand.
To give you a friendly nudge in the right direction, we asked stylist Sarah Gilfillan from personal shopping service Sartoria Lab to recommend four fail-safe ways to wear your OCBD, whatever the occasion.
Oxford cloth may not be as fancy as poplin or pique weaves commonly used on dress shirts, but it can still be worn with a suit if you know how to get it right.
“An Oxford shirt is not the most formal style, so when it comes to styling, up the formality with high-contrast colours,” suggests Gilfillan. “For example – a white Oxford shirt with a burgundy knitted tie, navy cotton suit and oxblood loafers.”
Understandably, business and casual aren’t two words that have always gone together, but as office dress codes continue to relax, their pairing is becoming increasingly common.
“An Oxford shirt is the perfect staple item for business casual dress,” says Gilfillan. “Worn with an unstructured blazer or as part of tailored separates, you’ll never look over or under-dressed.”
For day-to-day duties, smart casual is the only way to go. Helpfully, the often tricky to dress for code is pretty much what the Oxford shirt was made for.
“An excellent default option for smart casual, an almost denim-toned blue version works well with sand chinos, but there are endless other options, and you can play with tucking it in and leaving it out to change the vibe.”
Dressing for downtime doesn’t always have to mean reverting to the same faithful hoodie or pizza-stained T-shirt. Instantly elevate your weekend attire by opting for a button-down in place of a sweat and earn yourself some off-duty style points in the process.
Switch out shoes for sneakers, throw on a casual jacket, and you’re pretty much there, according to Gilfillan. “A light Oxford shirt with jeans, a bomber jacket and trainers makes for a particularly strong weekend look.”
When it comes to the cornerstones of the male wardrobe, pale imitations are rarely a patch on the real deal. To make sure that your Oxford is (literally) cut from the right cloth, take note of these tips when searching for the perfect shirt.
While it might be impossible to visually distinguish between an Oxford shirt crafted from cotton and one blended with manmade fibres such as polyester, you’ll only get a comfortable, breathable and long-lasting wear from the former. Pure cotton Oxford shirts also offer a more pleasant hand feel, and will fare far better at keeping you cool in warmer temperatures.
Depending on who you ask, different menswear experts will suggest a different starting point for your collection of Oxford shirts. Yet all agree on the holy trinity of colourways every man should own: sky blue, white and pink. This applies whether your Oxford is uniform in colour or striped.
The enduring appeal of the Oxford shirt is its ability to be an everyman, which applies to fit as well as formality. Seek out designs that neatly follow your form without straining over your frame, looking out in particular for a box pleat (a rectangular fold of fabric that runs along the middle of the back) on the reverse for an increased range of movement.
Menswear purists will say that an Oxford shirt should feature a roll collar (where the lack of interlining causes the collar to rest in a curved shape) but straight collars (which, as you guessed, rest flat) offer a slightly cleaner finish. Oxford shirts without button-down collars, but still cut from the correct cloth, are usually reserved for formal outfits.
As with any other area of the male wardrobe, the devil is in the detail. Play to the Oxford shirt’s casual heritage by avoiding tricky French cuffs in favour of standard button cuffs. As for the fastenings themselves, mother-of-pearl sets the bar because it gives a depth of colour and is more resistant to cracking.
The Best Brands For Oxford Shirts
High-street outfitter Uniqlo is well-known for turning out quality wardrobe basics at wallet-friendly prices, and Oxford shirts are one of the things it does best.
Quality cotton, tasteful colours, a flattering fit and all this for less than half what most traditional brands cost. If that’s not worth braving the high street for, we’re not sure what is.
Buy Now: £19.90
The OG of the OCBD, Oxford shirt inventors Brooks Brothers was founded in Manhattan over two centuries ago, making it the oldest continually trading men’s outfitter in the US.
The firm released its iconic Polo Button-Down Oxford shirt in 1896, and in the process created a key building block in many a stylish man’s wardrobe.
Buy Now: £135.00
As the high street’s go-to spot for simple American classics, it stands to reason that Gap has an extensive collection of Oxford shirts.
Expect soft, casual cotton, cut slim but not too slim, deployed across short- and long-sleeved versions in a wide range of colours, stripes and checks.
Buy Now: £34.95
It’s impossible to think of an Oxford shirt without preppy, Ivy-League style springing to mind. And you can’t think preppy, Ivy-League style without ending up at Ralph Lauren.
The New York label has made the look its calling card since 1967, and its fitted, flattering Oxford options are some of the best around.
Buy Now: £95.00
The mod movement of the 1960s was one of the contributing factors that helped thrust the Oxford shirt into the mainstream, and it was Ben Sherman leading the charge.
Shirts by the British label have been passed from subculture to subculture, becoming iconic in the process. If you like your clothes to come with a story, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Buy Now: £80.00
Headquartered in Stockholm but with roots in preppy Americana, Gant is often cited as the brand that brought button-down shirts to the mass market. It’s also credited for inventing the hanger loop – another key casual shirt detail that was quickly adopted elsewhere.
While timeless, the clever detailing and modern twists on Gant’s products keep things moving forward. For a quality Oxford shirt from one of the originators, look no further.
Buy Now: £90.00
It should come as no great surprise that the old reliable of British department stores is well-stocked on the old reliable of men’s smart-casual dress codes.
With a strong offering from its in-house label, as well plenty of recognisable names, the retailer is bound to have an Oxford shirt that fits your wardrobe.
Buy Now: £45.00
One of America’s finest examples of classic, preppy style done well, J.Crew has become synonymous with easy-to-wear, modern wardrobe staples.
The brand’s approach has earned it legions of followers worldwide and its neatly fitted Oxfords are just one of the things that keep style-savvy shoppers coming back.
Buy Now: £78.00
With a shopfront on Jermyn Street – the capital of British shirtmaking – Emma Willis creates some of the finest bespoke and ready-to-wear Oxfords on the face of the earth.
You’ll not see any fleeting trends among the shelves here – the focus is solely on traditional, all-English styles. So if you like the idea of timelessness, quality materials and craftsmanship, Willis is most certainly the woman to see.
Buy Now: £240.00
Copenhagen-based label NN07 bills its products as the classics of tomorrow, and having kept a beady eye on its collections since 2007, we’d be inclined to agree.
The focus here is on simple wardrobe staples, an approach evident in its Oxford shirts, which feature a tidy slim-fit profile cut from resilient, wrinkle-resistant cotton.
Buy Now: €109.00
One of the most reliable names on the high street for almost half a century, Topman is a safe bet for more or less every component of the male wardrobe.
The retailer’s contemporary line-up of Oxford shirts is no different and includes options in bicep-hugging muscle-fit cuts. Because even swole bros need to look smart.
Buy Now: £25.00
Jean Touitou’s French label has carved out a niche as the premier provider of minimalist, Parisian chic. A.P.C. pays little attention to trends, instead focusing its attention on a level of quality that is second to none.
The Oxford button-down has long been one of the label’s key items, making A.P.C. the perfect place to pick one up.
Buy Now: £175.00
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Image: Brooks Brothers