Edward Crane asks, “What’s all the to-do about never buttoning the bottom button of a single-breasted suit jacket? Is that really the correct form?”
So, you’ve just pulled on your most dapper suit. You’ve a pocket square in place, a carnation in the lapel, and your best shoes strapped on—perhaps Church’s, or John Lobb. It’s a sunny day, just the right temp; you don your fedora and glancing in the mirror on the way out you can’t help but think—“The perfect gentleman-about-town; now this is the look of a true dandy!”
It’s a grand scene. But if you are a student of literary foreshadowing you just know it’s not going to stay that way. You walk down the street and women gasp, children start crying and their mothers send sharp daggers from their eyes in your direction. Gents about the lane show their malcontent by their goggling eyes and best open-mouthed codfish expression. A merciful fellow pulls you aside and says, “Great Scot man, what are you thinking? Will you give all gents a bad name? There are women and children about for goodness sakes! Now you just unfasten the bottom of your suit jacket, and be dashed quick about it, Sunny Jim.”
Two thoughts immediately strike you—1, your name isn’t Sunny Jim, and 2, from whence comes our modern day thicket of sartorial popinjays? Because you know a bit about button history…
“Look here my man,” you say, “it’s not as bad as all that.” You pat him the back in a consoling manner. “Let me give you a history lesson, hitting the high points as it were…”
The fellow’s hollow yet acidic laugh—the sort of laugh one would expect from a lemon— does not deter you.
Before hitting the high points, it may be worthwhile to mention straight-off the cricket bat that, while going against a great many very wise experts in the field of men’s suit-wear, I cannot help but coming to the conclusion that in this matter they are wrong—not because I think I know more than they, but because history provides incontrovertible facts that seem to render their position untenable—their position that the bottom most button of a suit jacket must NEVER be buttoned.
The High—er, Rotund—Points
During the years of 1901 through 1910 King Edward VII of England was, er, a growing fashion trend setter, of a sort. His girth increased faster than the royal tailors could sew, and one day, in need of relief, King Edward VII unbuttoned the last button on his waistcoat. And then he just kept on doing it. It didn’t take long for the King’s simple act of comfort for his large belly to lead to unbuttoned last buttons on the waistcoats of the gentry. Soon, this style popped up like a sartorial weed. Weeds are never static—unfastening the lower button on the suit jacket came next. It was a fad of the time, fads being the weed par excellence.
The Before and After
Prior to King Edward VII, men wore garments of coarse wool, animal hides, even bark. Wait—I’ve gone too far back in sartorial history. Ah, here we are, the 19th century. Before and for a long time after our friend King Edward VII men buttoned their suits in a variety of configurations. Walking down the street with all buttons done up didn’t cause women to faint, children to cry, or the anxious to panic. Through the 1950’s men wore suits with all buttons buttoned, or the bottom button unbuttoned, or some combination.
Yet somehow, like a dastardly bacterium, the idea spread that the bottom button ought not to be fastened, and before you could say “Bob’s your Uncle” suit jackets were designed specifically so that the bottom button is best left undone. Moving backwards, it runs like this:
The present: Many suit jackets are tailored specifically for the bottom button to be unfastened.
The mid 20th century: Still all manner of button configurations, but some people adopting the idea that suit jackets ought to have the bottom button unfastened, because some people were doing this and fashion designers kept saying it’s the way it should be.
Early 1900’s: King Edward VII becomes too large in the stomach region to comfortably keep the bottom button on his waistcoat fastened, and he leaves it unbuttoned; the gentry do what the King does, a sort of style fad. Soon it is the suit jacket with the bottom button left undone.
The 19th century: No such thing as “the bottom button is always left undone.” No rules as such—some men only button the top most button of their suit coats, some neatly button them all.
“Are you saying a fellow should always fasten the bottom button?”
No, indeed not. For one thing, it was never the case to always button a jacket in one way or another. Some jackets today really are made—the cutaway, for example—so that the bottom button is best unfastened. Not much of a choice. Or, a gentleman may have portly proportions about the old central fuselage that require the lowest button to remain undone.
But looking at photographic and print evidence from the century past, we see that some men buttoned all the buttons, and some men left the last unhitched. President John F. Kennedy, for example, buttoned both buttons on his Brook’s Brother’s suits. You can find ads for men’s suits from the 1920’s through the 1950’s that show various button configurations. These are facts of history, no getting around them. There is simply nothing to suggest that this lowest button OUGHT to remain undone or that doing so as a matter of course was ever part of sartorial tradition.
And there is good reason to button it: the look is more elegant, crisper; it looks more polished; the pelvic area is not exposed; the jacket doesn’t whip about in a breeze, a look that seems to convey disorder rather than having one’s style all together. If that weren’t enough, on a jacket with 3 or more buttons the buttoning of them all give one both a slimmer and taller appearance.
One of the arguments of our day is simply that a suit jacket hangs better with that bottom button ignored. But in reality, the manner of buttoning depends on one’s physique, one’s personal style, and how the jacket looks. A mirror, one’s wife, or both, are of tremendous assistance. Does a certain buttoning configuration cause:
—unsightly bumps due to a wallet or other item in the jacket pocket
—look generally unkempt
—Make visible too much of the waste/pelvic region
Keep in mind, the type of suit comes into play here as well. Older suit jackets tend to have a higher gorge—in a nutshell, it buttons up higher, showing less of the shirt/tie area; newer suits tend to have a lower gorge—showing more of the shirt/tie area. Thus, a rough guide:
* Two Button Suits
—for a low-gorge style, the bottom button is meant to remain unfastened.
—for a high-gorge style, the bottom button should probably be fastened to prevent wind puffing up the jacket, blowing it about or showing too much of the waist/pelvis.
* Three Button Suits
—the top two buttons done, lowest undone: this is completely correct, but there are two potential problems for which to keep the eye peeled—1) with a wallet or other object in the jacket pocket, an unsightly bugle may appear; in this case, undo the top button. If not, you may leave it buttoned, or not. If not, and the suit cut is loose, this may create an unflattering diamond-type shape.
2) With the bottom button undone, it may cause you to look wider than you would like to appear. But if the jacket is designed for this button to remain unfastened, buttoning it may cause the material to bunch up, creating the same illusion of excess girth. And men are simply not meant to give girth.
—Only the top button done: this creates a wide expanse of the waist area to be exposed, and, while it may be a style some like, I can’t recommend it.
—All three buttons fastened: a striking and elegant appearance. The entire chassis appears narrower, and taller.
The really crucial bit with buttons is simply aiming for a dapper silhouette—and this may be achieved with a variety of buttoning techniques.
So what are we to make of the “never button the bottom button on a suit jacket” doctrine? It is, it seems, sartorial myth forced into service as legitimate tradition and/or tailoring wisdom, much the same as if a chap said, “one must always use a full-Windsor knot for one’s ties.” Alas, the full-Windsor simply doesn’t work for all ties, styles and physiques, and it’s no different when it comes to buttons—there has never been, nor can there really be, a hard and fast rule that says, without exception, “the bottom button is never fastened”; it’s simply a bit of supposed sartorial sagacity that is—and I know this sounds strong—poppycock, and even balderdash. Neither history nor common sense supports such a doctrine.
I know this conclusion may be irksome to many exceedingly fine tailors and clothiers, but I only ask them to consider the evidence, the arguments against their position, and possibly re-writing the saying to read, “the bottom button is sometimes best unbuttoned, or not.”
That all being said, I am more than willing to consider any evidence and arguments to the contrary of my position. Only one view can be true though—either that button is best always left undone, or is not always best left undone; either it is a legitimate tradition based upon sound reasoning and serving a good purpose, or it is not; either it always serves to render a graceful silhouette, or it does not always do so; either it is so for all suit jackets, or is not so for all suit jackets.
Do you have an opinion either way? Evidence to the contrary of that presented above? Reasons to back up the “never fasten the bottom button” theory? Please do leave a comment, or send an email to the WDG at email@example.com
Whatever your view, we’re all in the same sartorial boat, trying to look our dapper best and cut a figure of grandeur wherever we go.