Art of Manliness Suit School: Part III – A Primer on Suit Buttons

by A Manly Guest Contributor on April 2, 2010 · 37 comments

in Dress & Grooming, Style

Editor’s note: The AoM Community’s resident style hobbyist, Leo Mulvihill, posted a series of posts on the Community blog to help men understand more about buying, wearing, and looking your best in a suit. We’ll be publishing his entries here every other week. Thanks for sharing your sartorial knowledge, Leo!

It’s time for another session of the Art of Manliness Suit School.

Today’s topic is quick, easy, and inoffensive: suit buttons.

It might at first seem simple – there are buttons. There are holes. The buttons go in the holes. Done.

Like most things in life, though, there’s a little bit more to it than meets the eye.

A Quick History Lesson and a Fat King

Historically, in the early years of the suit as everyday menswear, it appears there were no formal buttoning rules. Look to trade magazines and illustrations from the earlier part of the 20th century, and one sees jackets with between one and five buttons, each buttoned in a manner that suited the personality of the wearer or the cut of the garment.

But much of this changed with a king who was too fat to button his jacket. Or at least, that’s what legend says.

According to the lore of menswear, in the early 1900s King Edward VII started the trend of leaving the bottom button of a suit undone.

Apparently, he grew so rotund that he was unable to fasten the bottom button of his waistcoat and jacket. To not offend the king, those associated with him started doing the same. The custom then gradually spread the world round (as England was still largely an imperial power with great influence across the globe).

Button That Suit!

Today’s suits are constructed in a manner where to ensure proper fit and drape of the jacket, one must generally leave the bottom button open. Whether this was started because of King Edward, or simply because of evolving fashion, it remains the rule today.

Remember: A suit should always remain buttoned until one sits, when it usually becomes necessary to unfasten the jacket. Once one stands again, the jacket should be refastened.

But as any gentleman knows, there are exceptions to every rule.

Suiting is no different.

Here’s a cheat sheet broken down by button styles.

Single Breasted Suits

One Button Suits

One button suits are the easiest to remember. The button should always be buttoned when standing and unfastened when one sits down. No extra buttons to fiddle with or worry about. Here’s an example of a one-button suit. This particular suit has peak lapels as well, in the classic tuxedo style.

Two Button Suits

Two button suits are also simple. The top button should remain buttoned, while the bottom button is left undone. If you button both and look in a mirror, you’ll immediately notice that something looks strange. The bottom button also significantly restricts your movement.

Here’s an excellent example of a two button coat with a nice natural lapel roll that comes from a canvassed lining:

Three Button Suits

With three buttons, you have options. You can either button the top two and leave the bottom unfastened, or simply button the center button. On suits with a lapel that is flat, it generally looks better to button the top two. If the lapel has a soft roll to it that extends past the first button, then it’s advisable to button only the center button.

Above is a three-roll-two lapel. You can see a button hole for the top button, but the button itself is hidden from view by the lapel. This jacket should only be buttoned in the center, as the cut and roll of the lapel essentially precludes the button from functioning properly without making a mess of the fabric at the front of the jacket. This is actually my preferred style for jackets. The soft roll of the lapel combined with the symmetrical top and bottom button holes exudes a classical elegance that normal three-button jackets cannot match. Moreover, this is a style that works best with full-canvassed or half-canvassed jackets, which is why I advocate for them so zealously!

Nowadays, one doesn’t see as many rolled lapels. So unless your suit has a rolled lapel, it’s better to leave the top two buttons fastened. But keep your eye out for three-roll-two jackets and pick one up if you can. You’ll not regret it.

Four or More Button Suits

I do not advise that one ever wear more than three buttons on a single-breasted jacket. While they used to be common, nowadays they are more often seen on celebrities and those who want to make a brazen fashion statement. But they are generally neither rakish nor stylish, and you run the risk of being thought a fool if you wear them in a business environment. But if you feel inclined to pick one up regardless, just leave the bottom button undone.

Double-Breasted Suits

Double-breasted suits are pretty easy. Generally, fasten every button except the bottom (but even this is optional; Prince Charles routinely fastens them all for example).

Then, leave the suit buttoned until you take the jacket off – whether you’re sitting or standing. The military style behind the double-breasted suit requires that it remain fastened, otherwise the extra fabric at the front of the coat looks sloppy.

Above you can see Cary Grant in a suave-looking cream 6×2 double breasted – heading somewhere tropical, no doubt!

Its button configuration is known as a 6×2 because it has 6 buttons, only two of which can fasten. It is my opinion that this style of double-breasted jacket is most flattering for the greatest number of men. If you notice, the bottom-most button is undone. This improves suit drape and give a nice masculine figure to the jacket.

Other double-breasted jacket styles you might see include:

6 x 1 – Popularized in the late 80s and early 90s. This unfortunate style, worn by Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, now looks terribly dated and does not flatter many men. Please stay away.

4 x 1 and 4 x 2 – Often seen on the Duke of Windsor, this style of jacket has 4 buttons, of which either two or one fasten. The 4×1 was also quite popular in the 80s, but does not offend my sensibilities as much as the 6×1 . But be careful if you already have a belly, as the 4×1 has a tendency to magnify any weight around the midsection. The 4×2 is more versatile, as one may fasten either the top, bottom, or both buttons. The 4×2 appears far less often in ready-to-wear clothing than the 6×2 or 4×1.

2 x 1 – Just say no, unless it’s a smoking jacket or shawl-lapelled tuxedo. This is an 80s revival look that should stay dead.

So whether you prefer one, two, three, or more buttons, you’re now armed with the proper knowledge to look your best in all situations!

Enjoy for now, fellow gentlemen. More Suit School to follow! Please message me on the Art of Manliness Community if you have specific questions or ideas for future Suit School topics!
_______________
Art of Manliness Suit School: Part 1 – Fused vs. Canvassed Suits
Art of Manliness Suit School: Part 2 – The Alterations Every Man Needs

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tom Nicol April 2, 2010 at 2:30 am

My cousin gave me the tip – on three buttoned suits the rule of thumb for each button being fastened in order from top to bottom is “sometimes. always. never.”
So I guess he was right! It’s a good little saying to remember.

2 Jeremy April 2, 2010 at 11:50 am

I appreciate this article. It might not seem like a big thing as you say, but I can never remember what buttons to button and when. Thanks for laying it out in a simple way.

3 Mark April 2, 2010 at 2:55 pm

I’m particularly enjoying the Suit School articles. With a wedding coming up, having this is massively useful.

Does anyone have a picture (or a link) for a 2×1 suit? I’m wondering as I’m having a bit of a problem picturing it in my head.

4 Mark April 2, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Ah. I believe I’ve found a few.

http://www.thelondonlounge.net/gl/forum/viewtopic.php?f=32&t=9140&start=0

Are those (with the exception of the Duke of Windsor’s green suit) the 2×1?

5 OkieRover April 2, 2010 at 3:25 pm

The sharpest dress coat I ever wore was a 7×1 coat. You kept all the buttons buttoned ALL the time. You even hid the bottom button with a belt, no way to unbutton it when you sit.
Only the manliest of men can wear this coat.
http://www.alphacompany.net/ac03.JPG

6 Thornproof April 2, 2010 at 4:58 pm

My personal guides are the Duke of Windsor and Prince Charles. They are great dressers, with impeccable taste in clothing, and can be guaranteed to be wearing the appropriate clothes in the correct way at the right time.

7 Juice April 2, 2010 at 8:35 pm

Ugh! Of all the annoying people who post comments on this site the ones I can stand the least are the military types.

Just because you were in the {insert you country’s name} military does give you a “man card” for life. Need we look back at history (very recent or ancient) and look at all the soldiers and generals that would make a moral person blush.

Being a man comes from within, it doesn’t come from a uniform.

8 Silverius April 2, 2010 at 10:28 pm

Juice,
While I agree that being a man comes from within, I disagree with you because most men shine from within the jacket of one of the military services. The characteristics that make up your “average” service member are the same characteristics usually described to manliness: honor, courage, integrity, service, and sacrifice. OkieRover obviously served for many years of faithful service. To reach the rank of Gunnery Sergeant is no easy task and shows the dedication he has to his country (another attribute usually attached to manliness).

In addition, attributing the faults of the minority of military members to the majority is faulty logic and a bad analogy. You do not know what type of person he is or what his experiences in life has taught him. Most service members serve honorably and return to civilian life as exemplary citizens and beacons of Manhood. Attacking the post of a military member just because he is proud of his military service, uniform, and heritage seems to be unnecessary in this setting. This discussion is about the buttoning of suits and their proper wear.

Silverius
MSgt, United States Air Force

9 Gary Olson April 2, 2010 at 10:55 pm

I always preferred the more casual 6×1 suit for the manly man.
http://www.northerntool.com/shop/tools/product_200308647_200308647

10 OkiTree April 3, 2010 at 12:15 am

OkiRover, I’ve got that very same suit with the same “adornments” lol……. yes it is for only the “manliest of men” S/f

11 Adventure-Some Matthew April 3, 2010 at 5:42 pm

Just last night I had occasion to wear my suit. Somewhere along my short life I was taught how to properly button my jacket, and was able to do so correctly throughout the evening. Two buttons: bottom one always unbuttoned, top one closed when standing and open when seated.

12 Sir Lancelot April 4, 2010 at 5:07 am

Silverius, I said it on another entry and got flamed for it. There is a certain type of (hopefully very young) poster who seems to loose all trace self-control and civility when they read anything vaguely allusive to religion, the military, or, dare I say it, heterosexuality, even when the original poster was in no way claiming exclusivity on manliness or the subject of the discussion is something as neutral as suit buttons or table manners. Usually it goes something like this: “omg omg its so unfair am as manly as you and am a gay vegan pacifist athist u facist suk this blog suk” or something to that effect. It’s starting to put me off this blog, which is a shame, as it’s, for my money, the best blog on the web.

13 Dae April 4, 2010 at 10:07 am

When done right, a tailored 6×1 DB (Kent doublebreasted) can look great. Just look at Ralph and David Lauren. Or Luca di Montezemolo who buttons his 6×2 DBs as if they were 6×1 DBs.

14 Mike Anderson April 5, 2010 at 7:46 am

I’m with OkieRover. And OkiTree. I’ve worn that 7X1 Jacket, it’s a coat for a man’s man! S/F

15 GCU Prosthetic Conscience April 5, 2010 at 12:05 pm

The discussion of military dress uniforms is clearly off-topic for this post, though, surely? What type of civilian suit should be worn, and how, is a matter of etiquette, which must be learned, and taste, which must be cultivated. How and when a military dress uniform should be worn is, by contrast, a matter of regulation, which brooks no discussion, and thus needs none added here.

16 Thomo April 5, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Regarding the origins of leaving the bottom button undone, I have been told by a taylor that it comes from wearing jackets whilst riding a horse. Having the bottom button undone is obviously far more comfortable and practical. From there, jackets began to be designed and cut with the assumtion that the bottom button would be undone.

I have always thought double-breasted jackets suited men with a fuller frame or, have I just not seen one tha was well taylored?

17 Leo April 5, 2010 at 10:04 pm

A properly cut riding jacket actually allows all buttons to be fastened.

DB jackets are good for men of any frame. There’s a myth about that they’re a poor choice for short or stout men, but I don’t subscribe to that myth/

18 Joe April 5, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Personally, I prefer to leave the top button of a 3 button jacket undone even with a flat lapel. A matter of personal taste, I suppose. It could be wrong, and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been called a buffoon haha.

Also, I agree with GCU Prosthetic Conscience. I have much respect for our servicemen and women, but the discussion of military uniforms here is off topic, as, like he said, they are a matter of regulation, not style. If I decide to wear my 6×2 as a 6×1, nobody’s going to order me to do pushups.

Not that I’d ever wear a double breasted suit. They’re so closely associated with the 80′s in my mind that I call them Reagan suits, and in the most pejorative sense possible.

/not a fan of Reagan, as I’m a gay vegan pacifist atheist
//not really. I’m a straight meat-loving violence-accepting agnostic
///shows self out.

19 Sir Lancelot April 6, 2010 at 5:25 am

Ironically, I don’t remember Reagan ever wearing a Reagan suit.

20 James L April 6, 2010 at 11:29 pm

All good…didn’t know the bit about Edward VII, though. Quite interesting, and just odd enough to be true!

Would only differ on the issue of 4-button jackets. I have three of them and LOVE them so much more than the traditional 2-button coats. And mine ARE quite snazzy and stylish – tons of compliments on them constantly. Usually wear them fully buttoned, too, unless I add a waistcoat.

Of course, I take pleasure in gently flouting the ordinary rules, but never in a “bad” way!! ;-)

21 Richard | RichardShelmerdine.com April 10, 2010 at 2:48 pm

I had to pick out a suit for a new job recently and it’s really tough. All I coudl think looking at those pictures is the word “Spiffing”! In all seriousness though suits are essential to a mans overall look.

22 Chad Runner April 14, 2010 at 7:41 am

Great article. Terrible photos. Step it up, man.

23 pierre April 26, 2010 at 5:49 pm

My advice for getting the correct suit (and fit): find a quality haberdasher. You will never want to buy clothes any other way.

24 Patrick May 5, 2010 at 1:25 am

Regarding Thomo’s explanation,

I also have heard a remarkably similar explanation from a few sources. I’ve been lead to believe that the bottom button rule originated from Napoleonic era soldiers who rode on horses back. The reasons for my belief in this explanation is that the modern suit originates from the old military uniforms from roughly that era; and also as Thomo has mentioned, ridding on horses without it undone would be most uncomfortable. This seems like it would also flow on into the bottom button of a waste coat being left unfastened for the same reasons.

Another thought, in regards to the King Edward VII theory. I would believe that the lower button would be the easiest for a rotund gentleman to fasten, not the top buttons that are situated over a man’s widest part. Just my humble thoughts, take them or leave them.

All the best everyone, and many thanks to the author for his artical,

Patrick

25 Brad June 19, 2010 at 10:39 am

Check the ‘net for suit advertising from the 30′s to the 50′s (and later). Everywhere you turn we are told NEVER to fasten that bottom button, but both buttoned and unbuttoned have been accepted for most of the last century. Many old ads show both side by side.
Properly cut, a 2 or 3 button jacket can be buttoned fully without ‘pulling’ or looking odd. I do it on my 2 button often, especially when it’s windy; drape-cut there is enough fabric to allow it.
It’s like leaving the jacket open while standing in a 3 piece. So many people saying it is ‘not done’; but plenty of well dressed gents have been doing it for years! Wear what looks good for you, with confidence.

26 Leo June 21, 2010 at 11:13 pm

@Brad – There are a lot of advertisements that don’t work well in real life. Generally, suits are not cut to fasten the bottom button and still look sharp.

@Chad – Updated pics, just for you.

27 Ricardo Reis September 21, 2012 at 1:15 pm

In this comunity’s opinion what is the best “body bult” to wear the 6×1 double breasted jacket?? I do intend to go to a tailoring service of long trust and order one.

28 Alex September 29, 2012 at 8:00 pm

I’ve always wondered, do I have to unbutton when I have my hands in a pockets?

29 Hans October 8, 2012 at 3:20 pm

With regards to typically overlooked buttons: the sleeve buttons on well-made suits are usually functional, rather than merely decorative. In some circles (in my case student/business in the Netherlands) it is a mos to undo the button closest to the wrist.

30 Jon Zo November 29, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Browsing for suits today and came across this great blog. My two cents: double breasted suits are for tall men. That means 6′ 2″ or higher. The rest of us mere mortals (5′ 11″ here, same as Daniel Craig) should stick with a one or two button.

31 Arunner January 5, 2013 at 8:21 pm

If the bottom button should never be fastened, then why put it there to begin with?

32 Erico May 15, 2013 at 4:46 pm

WHere can I find that first suit? The one with one button?

33 JA May 26, 2013 at 4:07 pm

“”If the bottom button should never be fastened, then why put it there to begin with?”"

This. I would also like to know the reasoning behind this.

34 Chris Cardinal June 21, 2013 at 2:32 am

““”If the bottom button should never be fastened, then why put it there to begin with?””

This. I would also like to know the reasoning behind this.”

You two should consider reading the article, which covers this in some detail. It’s a fashion holdover from a fat king who couldn’t button his bottom button which started a trend.

35 Wasim July 13, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Does Double-breasted mean the two sides overlap or it has two columns of buttons or both?

36 H suits up October 13, 2013 at 5:10 pm

hey,
I really like the one button, 3 part suit depicted here, but i don’t know what brand it is or if there any other pictures, so i can have it made on my size… can anyone help me out here? thx!

37 I_want_that_suit March 12, 2014 at 11:24 pm

I know I am late to the party but does anyone have any information about the one button suit (1st Picture)?

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