The buttons on the sleeves of men’s jackets serve no real purpose today. But there are many stories explaining how they came to be there.
One story involves Frederick the Great, who was King of Prussia in the 1700s. Frederick’s armies were involved in a great many wars, and he was often on the field of battle with his troops. One of his concerns, so the story goes, was the appearance of his men.
One day, as he went about inspecting his soldiers, he became quite upset at the dirty sleeves of their uniforms. When he asked why the sleeves were dirtier than the rest of the uniforms, he was told that the soldiers wiped the sweat from their faces on their sleeves.
Frederick refused to have this habit continue, so to stop it, he ordered metal buttons sewn on the top side of all soldiers’ sleeves. That way, if the men wiped their faces, using their sleeves as a towel, they would get badly scratched.
Eventually these buttons were put on civilians’ jackets as well, but only as decoration.
Suit jackets in all styles typically have three or four buttons on each cuff, which are often purely decorative. The number of buttons is primarily a function of the formality of the suit; a very casual summer sports jacket might traditionally – in the 1930s – have had only one button, while tweed suits typically have three and city suits four. In the 1970s, two buttons were seen on some city suits. Today, four buttons are common on most business suits and even casual suits.
Although the sleeve buttons usually cannot be undone, the stitching is such that it appears they could. Functional cuff buttons may be found on high-end or bespoke suits; this feature is called a surgeon’s cuff. Some wearers leave these buttons undone to reveal that they can afford a bespoke suit, although it is proper to leave these buttons done up. Modern bespoke styles and high end off-the-rack suits equipped with surgeon’s cuffs have the last two buttons stitched off-centre, so that the sleeve hangs more cleanly should the buttons ever be undone.
A cuffed sleeve has an extra length of fabric folded back over the arm, or just some piping or stitching above the buttons to allude to the edge of a cuff. This was popular in the Edwardian era, as a feature of formal-wear such as frock coats carried over to informal-wear, but is now rare.
On the number of buttons:
– Five buttons (or more). Very rare and often considered as too flamboyant.
– Four sleeve buttons are most common on any style of jacket. Considered proper and slightly more formal than three.
– Three sleeve buttons are second most common, mostly seen on single breasted and dinner jackets, or very casual and informal jackets.
– Two sleeve buttons are quite rare and one will probably only ever see them on bespoke garments.
– A single sleeve button will only ever be seen on proper dinner jackets. However, most tailors will opt for the more common four or three buttons.
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