Button Up Shirts for Everyone: The Gender-Free Style Guide

Someone wearing a button up shirt with black jacket

By Dan MacKinlay – April 2023

Button up shirts are a quintessential staple of wardrobes. Just like any other clothing item, they can be worn by anybody regardless of their age, shape, size, or gender identity. One of the best things about button up shirts are being versatile. They can be dressed up or down, styled in many ways, and worn in different climates. In this article, we will examine what a button up shirt is, investigate problems & solutions with gendered button up shirts, and explore different types of button-up shirts and how to style them. 

What is a Button Up Shirt?

Someone wearing a button up shirt with colorful print

A button-up refers to a shirt that has buttons running vertically down the front, typically with a collar and sleeves.

Button up shirt vs. blouse vs. dress shirt

There is no major distinction between a button up shirt and a blouse or a dress shirt as a clothing item itself. Blouses may or may not have buttons partway up and sometimes are looser through the hip. Dress shirts have a collar and buttons but are sometimes longer to allow tucking into pants. Despite having no clear-cut distinction, a lot of people associate the word “blouse” with what is traditionally refereed as women’s fashion and associate the word “dress shirt” with what is traditionally refereed as men’s fashion. Thankfully, these associations are weakening as more and more people are realizing that clothing has no gender.

Button up vs button down 

While bottom ups are not majorly different from a blouse or a dress shirt, bottom ups are different then button downs. The term “button-down” refers to the style of the collar, which features two smaller buttons in each collar point. These buttons date back to 1869 England and were introduced to polo players to secure their shirt collars that were blowing up during game play causing a distraction and impairing the players’ vision. The trend spread to other sports, and eventually to more mainstream fashion. On the other hand, button-up shirts don’t have buttons on their collars.

Someone wearing a white button up shirt

The Brief History of the Button Up Shirt      

Button up shirt has humble beginnings. Before the medieval period, shirts were worn as an underwear or nightgown by people of all genders and ages. They had different versions including no collar, attached collar or detachable collar. In the 18th century, the collar itself grew enormous and decorative with lace and embroidery as a sign of prosperity and class status. 

In the mid 1900s, wealthy man would have shirts tailor made (factory-made shirts were not yet available), while less wealthy men would have shirts made by their wives. This is the era when the shirt became more fitted to individual bodies, and became useful for various endeavours: work, sport, and leisure. Shirts with a fixed collar became popular in the 1930s, and twenty years later a “risqué” short-sleeved version became available. In the 1960s, all rules were broken and remain so today - the styles and availability of the button up shirt are nearly endless. 

Problems (& Solutions) with Gendered Button Up Shirts

Button-up shirts can be unforgiving in terms of fit. Shirts designed for AMAB (assigned male at birth) bodies, especially those containing no stretch, simply don’t accommodate the chests and hips of many AFAB (assigned female at birth) bodies. One may just wonder why sizing up isn’t an option — doing so affects the proportions of the garment. The shoulders may become too boxy, and sleeves too lengthy.

Shirts typically designed for AFAB (assigned female at birth) bodies are not gender neutral enough either. They may (1) lean too far into the feminine for those who prefer a more androgynous look, (2) their collars which tend to be narrower are often not structured enough to be worn with a necktie or bowtie, (3) may exclusively feature an hourglass silhouette, and (4) typically have the buttons on the opposite side.  

Two people looking at each other wearing different styles of button up shirts

So, for those who want to wear a button up shirt gender neutral/fluid style, what are the options for a well-fitting shirt?  

One option is to sew the shirt yourself. However, tailoring shirts is an advanced skill even many seasoned seamstresses won’t take on. Another option is to have a shirt tailored professionally. Having shirts taken in at the shoulders, sleeves shortened, or extended through the hip may be costly, and this option is less convenient if you want to wear the piece right away.  Another option is to seek brands that prioritize gender neutral, gender fluid, and/or non binary design for button up shirts. Most brands/manufacturers make button-up shirts with a specific gender in mind from the outset. But there are some brands out there that have sought ways to address differences in body shape without resorting to a gendered categorization for garments.

Different Types of Button Up Shirts and How to Style Them

Button up shirts seem can seamlessly blend into any fashion collection and there are a lot of styling options available to button ups. Here is an overview of most common types of button up shirts and our tips on how to style them.  


Someone wearing a button up shirt with colorful print

This style has become increasingly popular in recent years. This style is reminiscent of a ‘dad vacation shirt’, but cooler and with a bit of edge. This shirt doesn’t take itself too seriously, but still looks good. Fun prints and colours are often available in this style and are available at many price points.  

How to wear? The long- and short-sleeved versions of this style can be worn with jeans, khakis, or shorts. They’re a very versatile piece since they look more formal buttoned up, and more casual worn open with a tee or tank as an under layer. Accessorizing with fun jewelry, hats, or a smart watch can change your look while wearing this piece.

Where to wear? Family gatherings, the beach, dates, casual night out, shopping, business-casual office. 

For which bodies? With a broad range of sizing and fit options, this adaptable style is flattering and fun on many body types. 


Someone playing a video game wearing flannel shirt

A flannel shirt is a type of shirt made from a soft woven fabric that has a brushed surface, which gives it a ‘fuzzy’ texture. The fabric is usually made from cotton or wool, and is often plaid or checked in pattern, although solid colors are also available. This wardrobe staple for all bodies has been reborn to suit nearly every taste, body type, and price point. 

How to wear? Like the classic button up, the flannel button up can be worn with various casual pants, shorts, or jeans. It looks great worn open with a tee as a warmer layer or buttoned up.

Where to wear? Outdoor adventures, dates, sports games, a business casual office, cozying up by a fireplace with a good book. That said, this fabric tends to be on the more casual end of the spectrum, so it’s best to proceed with a bit of caution if your event is more formal - another option may be preferable. 

For which bodies? The wide range of sizing makes this flannel wearable by many bodies. The ability to make alterations is also helpful. To avoid gaping at the chest, those with a larger chest may wish to size up, make use of the alteration possibilities, or style the flannel differently (such as layering with a tee).  


Someone wearing a button up shirt with a mini skirt

A flowy, unstructured dress shirt is a type of shirt that is loose-fitting and made from a lightweight or breathable fabric. It is often made from materials such as silk, chiffon, or rayon, which drape easily and give the shirt a fluid, flowing quality. 

How to wear? These unique pieces are stunning with matching slacks in a similar colour palate but would also work with a slim jean or a skirt. For any gender, a block heel or platform sandal would be ideal. An espadrille or running shoe would be an interesting “dressed down” choice as well.   

Where to wear? Cultural events, concerts, shopping, lingering at a café, dates, some office settings. 

For which bodies? Because of the less restrictive nature of these shirts, many body types may find them very flattering and comfortable. 


Someone wearing a green printed button up shirt

We’d be remiss if we didn’t feature classic dress shirts; a timeless dress button up can be worn alone or with suiting. A fine dress shirt is an investment piece.   

How to wear? These must-have classics can be worn by anyone, with jeans, a tie, vest, suiting, sneakers, or oxfords. For another look, pair with leather pants and heels. Really, the possibilities are endless and limited only by imagination. 

Where to wear? To the office, holiday gatherings, a nice dinner, weddings, dates, clubbing. 

For which bodies? Fit is important with this style and trying on and/or carefully using the companies’ sizing charts is a must. Many body types may find them very flattering and comfortable when properly fitted. 

Button up shirts are one of the most versatile pieces of any wardrobe. But it can be challenging to find or style one that expresses who you are while navigating through gendered categories of fashion. We hope this guide has given you some ideas on how to find and style button-ups to make them your own. How will you wear a button up shirt? Tag us in your looks at @offbinary on Instagram.

Dan/Danielle MacKinlay (she/they) is a communications professional with a background in information science. They have worked in inclusion leadership, specialized libraries, and employment equity. Dan enjoys writing content on a variety of topics such as fashion, crafting, and social issues. They serve as a board director for a number of not-for-profit organizations. In their free time, they enjoy reading, crafting, and solving crossword puzzles. Dan is a parent of three spirited children - during the summer months they take part in outdoor activities together such as hiking, cycling, and camping.