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I was wondering where the term 'button-down' comes from. I tried to do some research but I was not very successful...

How was the word button-down formed? Is it a compound ?

Does it originate from the noun "button", which then became the verb "to button" meaning to fasten? Then, how did it become an adjective ?

If the adjective "button-down" originates from the verb "to button (stg) down", shouldn't the adjective be "buttoned-down"? If so, how did it change to become only "button-down" ?

I looked up etymonline and the online merriam-webster but could not find any answer.

Can anybody answer this ?

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1  
A certain type of men's formal shirt has the collar tabs buttoned to the shirt, making a tunnel for the tie. These are called "button-down collars". They were fashionable among American bureaucrats and other office professionals for a while, and they became a symbol of bourgeois conformity. Cf. "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart", a standup comedian of the times (1961). –  John Lawler Mar 31 at 18:58
    
@John Lawler That is the answer for 'button'down'. But I am wondering if the OP needs to know about 'buttoned-down' which is used in a far wider, and figurative sense. Also there may be some confusion with 'batten down', as in 'batten down the hatches', often used metaphorically to mean to prepare one's defenses against outside forces. Please could the OP confirm if further help with these terms is needed. –  WS2 Mar 31 at 20:11
3  
Button-down is a normal shortening for a participial adjective; i.e, it means the same thing as buttoned-down, just like soft-shell crab means the same thing as soft-shelled crab. It's almost impossible to pronounce buttoned-down without merging the /d/ at the end of buttoned with the /d/ at the beginning of down. So we mostly never try. –  John Lawler Mar 31 at 20:19
    
Are the collars etymologically significant? When I use the word it's for the placket. I use button-down in contrast with pullover, tee, cardigan, and such. But that could be a later usage. –  Bradd Szonye Mar 31 at 20:37
    
I had actually understood the meaning of "button-down", what I fail to understand is its formation and origin. Is "button-down" a compound? if I understand well, "button-down" has the exact same meaning as "buttoned-down" and either could be used in any situation? Is "button-down" more used just because it is easier to pronounce ? –  Charlie Mar 31 at 20:38

2 Answers 2

Merriam-Webster Online's definition explicitly associates button-down with collars:

1 a of a collar : having the ends fastened to the garment with buttons b of a garment : having a button-down collar

2 or buttoned-down : conservatively traditional or conventional; especially : adhering to conventional norms in dress and behavior [button-down businessmen]

and it dates the first known use of the adjective to 1934. However, a Google Books search demonstrates that the usage is at least 18 years older.

From an ad for Wolff's Shirt Shops, in The Yale Literary Magazine (February 1916):

"B 366" "The Student" This Shirt has been voted upon the men of all Leading Colleges "THE SHIRT." The above cut portrays its exactness—it is made of a High Grade Birdseye White Oxford, has a long deep pointed button down Collar with soft French Cuffs,

From Northwest Catalog Co. [Minneapolis, Minnesota], Catalog (1918) [snippet]:

White Summer Shirt 27B4730—Men's shirt made of fine white pongee with watch pockets, turnover button-down collar, imitation French cuffs, cut coat style button over five pearl buttons, cut full and roomy, and is a cool, comfortable summer shirt that can be

From an ad for Buttrick & Frawley, in The Cornell Countryman (January 1921):

Shirts and Neckwear to the King's Taste, and Prices on Both to Yours

Newest Cravats 75¢ Up

White Cheviot Shirts with button-down collar $3 to $4.50

From "Fashion Forcast for Jackets and Coats," in The Boys' Outfitter (May 1921):

Among the novelties is the vestee jacket, as depicted in [illustration] Number 241. This has a button-down collar and outside breast pocket.

From an ad for Yale Co-op in The Yale Alumni Weekly (May 19, 1922):

Do you remember the especially fine white sport shirt you used to buy at the Yale Co-op? We still carry that same make and get orders for these shirts nearly every day from some part of the country. Single or French cuffs—button-down collar. New stock just arrived.

Another early instance spells the adjective without a hyphen—and doesn't refer to collars at all. From an ad in Vanity Fair (1927) [snippet]:

Perfect fit is assured by the small buttondown belt at the back which adjusts to your exact measure. Exclusive with us, these shorts cannot be obtained elsewhere.

A Google Books search also turned up several (but considerably fewer) early examples of "buttoned-down collar," including one especially early (but unverifiable) instance from a 1911 Sears Roebuck catalog.

From "Horse Show Fashions pro-English," in The Clothier and Furnisher (December 1921):

Then, too, the evidence indicated that we have not seen the last of the white shirt with attached, buttoned-down collar. The college enthusiasts are sticking to it longer than usual. An occasional stiff bosom shirt appeared, one of character having light and dark cross stripes of pink.

From "Collars," in The Clothier and Furnisher (April 1922):

Great interest is manifested in the attached collar shirt. These shirts are being produced in Oxford cloth with a range of colors ; the soft, buttoned-down collar giving a certain dress effect.

To sum up, the Google Books search results suggest that "button-down collar" first achieved significant popularity in the northeastern United States among college students in the 1910s and early 1920s, and caught on more generally from there. At least one contemporaneous clothing industry journal (The Clothier and Furnisher) seems to have preferred the spelling buttoned-down, but the majority of haberdashers opted instead for button-down, and that spelling won out. I doubt that the shirt sellers in question based their decision on any grammatical theory.

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Nicer shirts have a button to attach the tips of the collar to the shirt front to keep it covering the tie you should always be wearing. This creates a button-down collar shirt, and the look is 'button-down'

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