Of Buttons and Buttonholes

A man’s jacket is much like his house. And his buttons are as important as the house’s hardware, fixtures and architectural details. As with architecture elements, the entire button thing can seem daunting. What’s proper? What’s in good taste? Will people be impressed? Do I really care?

In matters sartorial, as well as architectural, once you know the rules, it’s all rather easy and a lot of fun. Just remember, you may only break the rules successfully when you have truly understood them. Shall we review?


Most of us are either going to wear double-breasted or single-breasted jackets, with the former becoming, sadly, less popular, particularly in our swampy climate.

(Warning: This section involves mathematics.)

The classic placement of buttons on a double-breasted jacket is known as 6 x 2. That is, a total of six buttons, of which two are working and four are decorative. The correct positioning of those buttons is for the bottom four, including the working pair, to form a square, and the top two decorative buttons to be offset by an additional half-distance from the lower four, in the shape of a two-legged cocktail glass. (See Cary Grant, below)


Note how Cary only fastens the top working button. This gives an air of authority, with a touch of formality. In contrast, Humphrey Bogart would often only fasten the bottom working button, affecting a more casual look. Bogart also had his tailor place all the buttons closer together, a trick to make him appear taller and slimmer than he actually was.

For those who can afford custom tailored jackets, there is the Kent variation, which is a 4 x 1. Commissioned in the 1920s by the Duke of Kent, younger brother of the Duke of Windsor, this featured one working button and three decorative, and allowed for a longer lapel line and less emphasis on the waist, providing the illusion of greater height.

kent jacketA Windsor wearing a Kent

Alas, as with so many innovations in men’s clothing, a good idea is adapted and ruined. In this case by the infamous 6 x 1. Cheaper to manufacture, and appealing to the common man’s desire to appear virile, this version has six buttons arranged in the shape of a keystone, supposedly intimating a he-man physique, with only one bottom button fastening. It was most recently displayed in the 1980s and 1990s by prominent criminal defense attorneys and their clients. The effect was enhanced by copious shoulder padding.


Most single-breasted jackets today are two-buttoned. The three-button version is not often seen in ready-to-wear and is becoming quite rare in custom tailoring. It has been traditionally favored by American bluebloods and Italian dandies, also rarely spotted these days.

For the rest of us it is quite simple: On a two-buttoned single-breasted jacket the position of the top button (the only one to be fastened) is traditionally positioned at about half an inch below your natural waist (its narrowest point), but you will look slimmer and taller by placing it slightly higher. The top of the side pockets on the jacket should more or less align with the bottom button.

One-button single-breasted jackets are a rakish alternative for those of who can afford bespoke.

Suit-Porn-Daniel-Craig-in-Tom-Ford-2-500x333Daniel Craig from the premier of Sky Fall


  • Double-breasted jackets: half as many on the cuffs as on the front.
  • Three-button jackets: three on the cuffs.
  • Two-button jackets: two or four on the cuffs.
  • One-button jackets: one or three on the cuffs.
  • The cuff buttons should be smaller versions of the front buttons.
  • The cuff buttons should “kiss” (i.e. overlap one another ever so slightly).



On most suits and jackets horn and nut are the essential materials for buttons. Plastic is a no-no. Blazer buttons are traditionally metal, usually brass. And it’s always a relief for other people if they are not too bright. The use of anchor motifs and coats of arms are discouraged unless you are Navy or of nobility. For us commoners, a dull brass or, to break the rules, discreet exotic horn can be dashing. There are some good buttons made in Nepal.


It is remarkable how, after buying an off-the-peg jacket, replacing all of the manufacturer’s buttons with your own selection will transform a decently made and well-fitting suit into something truly special. In company, my wife likes to tease that her husband has sets of buttons for suits that he has yet to buy. I don’t see the humor, but admit I do spend more time browsing buttons online than I do on Facebook (see below, SOURCES).


Buttonholes are treacherous territory for the bumptious.

Custom-tailored suits traditionally feature working buttonholes for each button on the cuff, supposedly so that you can roll up your sleeves when washing your hands (hence the trendy term “surgeon’s cuffs”). Many high-quality ready-to-wear manufacturers may have the same, or perhaps just the bottom two cuff buttons will be functioning.

Beware a man who displays his cuff buttons undone in a public place or outside the operating theatre. And if you ever find yourself in the company of a man who informs you that a bespoke jacket has cuff buttons that open, just as he unbuttons his cuffs, you should discreetly remove yourself from his presence. The last time I witnessed such a thing I was still an impressionable young man. The offender was a Frenchman, of all things, and claimed to be some sort of count.

The pretentiousness of unbuttoned jacket cuffs has become so tedious that some bespoke tailors no longer offer them, unless the client insists. When I buy a ready-to-wear suit with unfinished cuff buttons – Hickey Freeman is one manufacturer that does this – it is marched directly to the alterations tailor to have them closed up.


A hand-stitched Milanese buttonhole is a thing of beauty. It is traditionally done with a thread color that varies slightly from the main color of the jacket. Unfortunately, for some, this invites the temptation to order hand-stitched buttonholes in garishly clashing colors in the attempt to demonstrate expense and sartorial nous, to the worst effect. It’s like the customer who insists that his architect install gilded Corinthian columns on the front entry of his Acadian manor house. You know whom I am talking about.




Simply put, any man in a well-fitting jacket with the correct buttons will always appear smart in an indefinable way. On the other hand, a man with the wrong buttons, whatever the cut and cloth of his jacket, will be indescribably unimpressive.


The internet has provided the possibility of button specialists to earn a living and provide a variety of goods that a local store could not possibly offer. They come and go, but I have had success with:

And, while The Button Queen on Marylebone Road has an awkward internet presence www.thebuttonqueen.co.uk, if you are ever in London and have any interest, a visit to the brick-and-mortar shop is a treat. A little north of Oxford Street, behind an indifferent storefront, you will find a remarkable selection of buttons and the opportunity to experience the dying art of English nonchalant customer service. And if you look remotely American, as I apparently do of late, the staff will put in a special effort to make you feel completely out of place. Run don’t walk.


Photo credits

Columbia Pictures
Getty Images
The Button Queen