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20. July 2018

The Mad Tailor: Sleeve Buttons


Maximilian Mogg

The 2015 film adaptation of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.is memorable for many reasons. Nonetheless, there are likely very few who will focus on the aspect this article will deal with today, namely, the number of sleeve buttons. Upon closer inspection, you will discover that the two male protagonists’ jacket sleeves are often adorned with two or four buttons. We will explain why later. However, before discussing the various possibilities in terms of the number of buttons, the actual button formation must first be discussed.

Waterfall buttons.

Overlapping (or waterfall) buttons are rather sporty and most commonly associated with Italian tailoring. In more recent times, many lower-end RTW makers have advertised overlapping buttons (which they consistently refer to, incorrectly, as kissing buttons) as the be-all and end-all of sleeve finishing. They, misleadingly, like to suggest that they represent a hallmark of quality as production costs are slightly higher on overlapping buttons. This may well have been the case once, much like how surgeon’s cuffs (sleeve buttons which can be opened) were once a good indicator of a bespoke suit. As a believer in the virtues of understatement, my buttons do not overlap, and I keep them closed as a rule.

Finally, a word to the wise: these two details are among a growing list of features which were once exclusive but are now readily available in even the least well-made RTW clothing. As such, a sleeve button left rakishly undone does not carry the same weight it once did.

How many?

The rules for double-breasted jackets are less complex, so that will be our starting point. We would recommend the number of sleeve buttons is always half of the number of buttons on the front of the jacket. Taking the example of a 6X2 double-breasted in a light grey Prince-of-Wales check, three sleeve buttons would be suitable as it creates four symmetrical banks of three buttons across the jacket.

POW check from Harrison’s of Edinburgh’s Worsted & Woollen Flannels bunch. A two-piece suit would cost €1780.

The number of buttons on the front of single-breasted jackets can also have an impact on the number of sleeve buttons. Sir Hardy Amies (one of the more prominent members in the Pantheon of Savile Row) writes in The Little Book of Men’s Fashion: “I think it’s easy to work according to a simple, well-balanced formula that contributes to the design of each piece. As such:

(a) Jackets with one closing button have three sleeve buttons.

(b) Two-button jackets have two sleeve buttons.

(c) Three-button jackets always have three sleeve buttons.”

On a tweed jacket with horn buttons, any of these combinations is possible.

A jacket cut in this off-white Harris Tweed from W. Bill would cost €1025.

Another solution is a single sleeve button. A single sleeve button is most likely to be found on less formal suits or sports jackets (and, conversely, on dinner suits). A suit (I’m thinking two mother-of-pearl closing buttons, one sleeve button, patch pockets) cut from this light-blue herringbone linen from the Harrison’s of Edinburgh Mersolair bunch would cost 1520€.

A suit (I’m thinking two mother-of-pearl closing buttons, one sleeve button, patch pockets) cut from this light-blue herringbone linen from the Harrison’s of Edinburgh Mersolair bunch would cost 1520€.

The number of sleeve buttons can be used to stretch or shorten the arm visually – incidentally, the same goes for overlapping buttons. In my view, with regards to sleeve buttons (as with any other aspect of menswear), one should be aware of all possible solutions, weigh up their relative merits, then make a personal, informed decision. Personal preference should never be forgotten. For example, I usually opt for four sleeve buttons in all cases to balance out the extraordinary length of my arms.

Further information

Firstly, four sleeve buttons were once considered essential and they were found on almost every jacket. Vestiges of this practice can still be found in almost all RTW. In fact, every RTW jacket I’ve ever owned has had four sleeve buttons. While this is not inconvenient for me, as I personally generally opt for four buttons anyway, I do think it is an option worth exploring. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a little more variety in the world? I would like to close by combatting a misconception I have heard very often. Namely, that non-functioning cuffs are necessarily of inferior quality. This is not true. For example, Anderson & Sheppard only provide surgeon’s cuffs at the express request of the customer, otherwise the cuffs will be non-functioning. FB/DC