James Bond has dabbled with button-down shirts on only a handful of occasions, so the shirt is not a particularly Bondian style. Though the shirt originated in Victorian England, button-down shirts are primarily an American style, which is one reason why Bond has rarely worn them. Since Bond has worn button-down shirts on three occasions, it is worth examining the shirts and Bond’s relationship with them further.
To ensure there is no confusion, a button-down shirt is a shirt with a button-down collar. It is not any shirt that fastens with buttons down that front. That is called a ‘button-up shirt’ or a ‘button-front shirt’. A button-down shirt is usually a type of button-up shirt, but it’s not uncommon to find popover shirts or polos with a button-down collar.
The Button-Down Collar
The button-down collar is a sporty collar, originally designed to prevent the collar points from flapping around when playing polo. The button-down shirt was the original polo shirt, before the knitted tennis shirt became better known as a ‘polo’.
Button-down collars are usually based on a point collar, though the best button-down collars are not merely point collars with added button-down buttons. The traditional American button-down collar is designed to have a good deal of ‘roll’ to it, which is both a result of the collar’s shape as well as the position of the collar’s button-down buttons high on the collarbone. Long points of approximately 3 1/2 inches on classic examples ensure there is enough length to the point so it can roll. The traditional button-down collar has a very soft construction, either with no interfacing or with a lightweight floating interfacing, to ensure it is free to roll without stiffness. There are no collar stays because they would compete with the button-down button. These details give the American button-down collar a unique character.
Because the button-down collar was originally developed for sports, many people—particularly the British—don’t believe it should be worn with a tie. Americans have been dressing it up with a tie for over a century, and many British and Italian men have also worn it with a tie. It’s not uncommon to see characters in British television and film in the 1950s and 1960s wearing button-down collars with suits and ties, though these characters might not be considered the most stylish.
Whether or not it is right or wrong to wear a tie with a button-down collar is ultimately a matter of personal taste even more than it relates to local customs.
Button-Down Shirt Cloths
Cotton oxford is the most traditional cloth for a button-down shirt. It’s a sporty, hefty, slightly lustrous cotton woven in a basketweave. Some people refer to a button-down shirt as an ‘oxford shirt’, but that can describe any shirt made of oxford cloth. Shirts made of oxford cloth commonly have a button-down collar, but it is not required. The heft of oxford cloth helps support and give body to the button-down collar’s roll.
Dressier versions of the button-down shirt are frequently made in pinpoint, oxford’s finer cousin. Americans have been known to make even dressier versions in white cotton broadcloth, a plain-weave cotton similar to poplin. Checks or fancy stripes in broadcloth, however, reintroduce a sportier element. Button-down shirts can also be found in cotton twill, brushed cotton, cotton flannel, chambray or linen, which are all sporty cloths that are nicely complemented by a button-down collar.
The only shirtings that are inappropriate for button-down shirts are very formal ones, like fine cotton poplins in solid colours, silk or white-on-white stripes.
Felix Leiter’s American Button-Down Shirt in Goldfinger
Button-down shirts show up on numerous characters throughout the Bond series, but there’s one character who wears them in the most quintessential manner. Cec Linder’s incarnation of Felix Leiter in Goldfinger dresses like a typical mid-century American in the “Ivy League” style with a sack suit and a blue button-down shirt, most likely in pinpoint. He looks like he shops at Brooks Brothers or J. Press, but his clothes could be from any number of American shops.
His clothes say more about him than any other on-screen incarnation of Felix Leiter, and the button-down shirt is the most important part of his look. It has the quintessential soft roll, which is intentionally sloppy and portrays the wearer as a man not overly concerned with his appearance. It’s not meant to look too sharp and makes the wearer look down-to-earth and trustworthy. The American button-down shirt is deliberately a simple and unassuming shirt, with a rounded one-button cuff, a rear centre box pleat and usually a breast pocket.
Leiter’s shirt has a chest pocket. Brooks Brothers added a pocket to their button-down shirts in the 1960s, while other makers had been putting pockets on their button-down shirts much longer. The pocket is now an iconic part of the American button-down shirt, and many fans of the shirt would never consider wearing one without a pocket.
Casual Button-Down Shirts in A View to a Kill
James Bond has never worn the classic American button-down shirt, only interpretations from across the pond. For his time in San Francisco in A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s James Bond attempts to blend in with the Americans by wearing two button-down shirts. This is despite his cover being British reporter James Stock of the London Financial Times. The button-down shirts on Bond are a surprise in this film, especially due to their first appearance being in the 14th film of the series.
Bond wears his button-down shirts in A View to a Kill as a British man ordinarily would by dressing them down. His first button-down shirt is made of white poplin with grey stripes. There are thick mid grey stripes framed on either side by thin dark grey or black stripes, and between these stripes are thin mid grey stripes. He wears this shirt with a grey suede blouson and mid-grey flannel trousers.
The second button-down shirt is in pale blue oxford, possibly royal oxford, which is a fancier basketweave and more common in Britain and Italy than in America. Bond wears it with a dark brown leather jacket and dark brown flannel trousers. He later switches out his leather jacket for a Zorin Industries blouson disguise.
Both shirts are made by Roger Moore’s regular shirtmaker Frank Foster. The collar is essentially the same as Moore’s semi-spread collars in the film, with points a little over 3 inches long. The shirts are also made in Frank Foster’s usual style with a placket stitched about half an inch from the edge and one-button cuffs. These shirts do not have pockets, following British custom.
Here Bond demonstrates the benefit of wearing a button-down collar without a tie. The button-down feature is effective for ensuring the collar stands up high and stays in place. Spread and point collars often collapse when worn open without a tie.
Roger Moore wore the same blue button-down shirt with a gun club check jacket—and surprisingly a tie—in 1985 appearances on TV-am and Good Morning America when promoting A View to a Kill. Here it shows the shape of the collar, which is wider than a typical button-down collar.
The buttons are positioned just up slightly from where the points would fall naturally so there is a small amount of roll for a neater look compared to the American button-down collar. The buttons primarily serve to keep the collar points anchored without the character of the American collar’s roll. The collar’s floating interfacing, though stiffer than that of an American button-down collar, contributes to the softer look sans Moore’s usual collar stays.
Moore also wears an ecru button-down shirt from Frank Foster in his 1984 film The Naked Face, both with and without a tie. The style better suits his character Dr Judd Stevens, a psychiatrist in Chicago, than it suits James Bond.
A Casual Button-Down Shirt in Die Another Day
The button-down shirts in A View to a Kill were an anomaly for Bond until Pierce Brosnan brought them back in Die Another Day. Here he wears a dark grey button-down shirt from R.M. Williams under two jackets. This is a shirt meant for wearing casually, never dressed up with a jacket and tie.
Dressing Up the Button-Down Shirt in No Time to Die
Daniel Craig brought back the button-down shirt in No Time to Die. He wears a cornflower blue denim shirt from Brunello Cucinelli, one of Daniel Craig’s personal favourite brands. It may have been Daniel Craig’s personal choice to wear this shirt in the film. The shirt is Italian, but the collar has a pronounced roll like the classic American version. The shirt differs from American button-down shirts by having a two-button cuffs, no chest pocket, a slim fit and blue buttons.
What is most surprising about this outfit is that James Bond wears a tie with a button-down collar. Due to Bond never having done so before in almost 60 years of being on screen, plus his British sensibilities, it was shocking to see him wear a button-down collar with a suit and tie. Because the suit is a very casual and sporty needlecord suit from Italian brand Massimo Alba, the button-down shirt is not out of place. An American or Italian would naturally wear a button-down shirt with this suit and a tie, but on Bond a soft semi-spread collar would be the expected choice.
Bond eventually loses the tie and the button-down collar looks more appropriate for the character, but the shirt is still an unexpected choice.