It’s fascinating how taking a gander at the origins of a particular action, or item of sartorial aspect, can transform it, turning it from something in which you simply weren’t interested or took for granted into a wondrous and esteemed treasure.
Consider the boutonnière. Wait, hold the phone—“boutonnière” conjures up images of that thing one needs to get from a florist for proms and weddings. Do not consider the “boutonnière”; expunge the word “boutonnière” from your repertoire. Consider instead: the buttonhole. True, both terms used to mean the same thing, but in our day, they are truly two separate categories.
The buttonhole debuted on the sartorial stage in 1840, courtesy Prince Albert. Arriving on the English scene to marry Queen Victoria, she presented him with a tiny bunch of flowers. Prince Albert, known for his charming and gentlemanly courtesy, took out his pocket knife, cut a hole in his jacket lapel, and called his tailor to tell him what he had done—and that he wanted a hole in the lapel of all his suit jackets from then on, because it was just the place to put flowers.
We can learn a lot from Prince Albert: He was courteous to a rummy degree; he put others before himself—even if it meant cutting a hole in his suit; and he was prepared for most any happening that may foist itself upon the present moment. In a word, he displayed a particular kindness, kindness being the pure syrup that courtesy and true gentlemanliness boil down to. Specifically, re the flowers Queen Victoria gave to him, Prince Albert showed that her gift was important to him. I’ve no doubt that Prince Albert made her day when he cut that hole in his jacket. This is the type of origin that one hopes to find for something like the buttonhole.
Today, springing forth from this gracious act of Prince Albert, any decent suit has a buttonhole on the jacket lapel, located on the same side as the pocket square pocket, and this button hole almost always has—no flower.
The lapel-flower never did become a hugely popular to-do, and today one could swing a cat by its tale and not hit a chap sporting a flower on the lapel, not to mention a pocket square. Scandalous. Not the swinging cat comment (no cats were actually swung by their tales in the writing of this article), but the naked-suit thing.
It seems that men, by and large, have no idea that the upper pocket on the suit jacket is for a pocket square or handkerchief, nor that the buttonhole on the lapel is for a flower. Nevertheless, while I would not say that a flower on the lapel is de rigueur, I would say that a pocket handkerchief is—the lack thereof is what makes a naked suit. That being said, not wearing a naked suit is a start, a beginning, and not the end—because there is still that unused buttonhole.
Before tromping on, once again expunge the word and image of the “boutonnière” from your mind. We’re not talking here about proms or weddings, but rather the everyday, gentlemanly wearing of a suit. For the everyday suit, we are talking about 1 (one) usually unadorned flower. Yes, it is said Prince Albert wore a small bouquet (though some say it was actually a single flower)—but even sartorial etiquette with a distinguished history can be modified a bit without losing its essence. Hence, today, the single flower in the lapel.
But why? Why wear a buttonhole just because good ol’ Prince Albert wore a buttonhole? In this case, it is not merely a matter of “because it’s tradition.” Rather, we need to look at why Prince Albert did it in the first place, and why he continued to do it after the initiating event. In its origin, again, he did it out of courtesy and kindness. Why did he continue to do it? For the same reason—no longer for the sole reason that Queen Victoria affectionately gave to him the very first buttonhole, but because wearing a flower on the lapel makes the day more pleasant for all one comes across, it spreads beauty and joy and what-not, and displays a truly gentlemanly character—it is the man who appreciates beauty and goodness that wears a flower on his lapel. It is, further, a man of style and panache that dons the buttonhole.
When you first insert the flower into the buttonhole and walk out your front door, you will no doubt be overly sensitive to the fact that there is, well, a flower clinging to your suit jacket. And people will stare a bit—take this as a compliment! Why do they stare? Because they are amazed that there are any men left that still know how to dress with style and elegance. You get used to it after a while, and you will receive compliments. The same thing happens when one places a fine hat on one’s head to go with the suit (I maintain that the everyday hat par excellence is the Fedora): Compliments all over the place.
So, what flowers does one trim the lapel with?
For daytime, red, pink or white Carnations. Carnations are suitable because they last a longish time without water. Carnations also have a close cousin, whose name is Sweet William, another good daytime flower.
In the evening, when one is dressed to the ol’ nines for fewer hours than during the day, give or take, a white or red rose, a Gardenia or a white Orchid fits the bill.
When it comes right down to brass tacks however, you can jolly well stick any flower you want in the buttonhole, if it isn’t too big and the color matches your ensemble.
There are, finally, some important technicalities.
Some suits these days are made with either no buttonhole on the lapel, or else what looks like a button hole yet is sewn shut. These are horrifying tailoring transgressions. While the missing buttonhole is well-nigh beyond correcting (a tailor could make one of course, but it may be too expensive to do so; and a tailor may be able to open that sewn-shut type of buttonhole; or you could do it Prince Albert’s way and use your pocket knife—you’re taking your own chances with that one though, there’s no guarantee it will be a successful venture). The trick is, never, never, never use a pin. If there's no buttonhole, or no useful buttonhole, just stick with a pocket handkerchief.
Most other suits have a buttonhole, but no supporting stem-loop. The stem-loop should be on the reverse side of the lapel and just a bit under the button hole. The stem-loop is often a silk thread, which supports, oddly enough from the name, the stem of the flower. If your suit does not have a silk thread to hold the stem in place, don’t let this stop you—you could still ply the flower, being careful to adjust it now and again, but it’s easy enough for a tailor to simply add a silk thread to the appropriate spot when you have a chance to drop your suit off at the tailor’s shop.
Remember, we’re in good company wearing a buttonhole—if anyone asks why you’re wearing one, tell them about our friend Prince Albert, and that you want to spread joy and sunshine wherever you go. Then leave them with a hearty “Pip-pip” whilst they watch you walk off, amazed that elegant gentlemen still walk the earth.
For more about flowers on the lapel, and other sterling and inside information on suits and men's style, check out A Tailored Suit--one of the very few bespoke tailors in America, making suits on par with those across the pond.