By Sonya Glyn Nicholson.
Opening image © Andrew Fox / Corbis
Tom Wolfe has a vice. As one of the most culturally significant figures of the sixties whose work has been met with critical acclaim for books such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe confesses in his essay in the NY Herald Times Tribune (1966) that he has an obsession with the buttonholes on his suits.
Here, from The Secret Vice:
“Real buttonholes. That’s it! A man can take his thumb and forefinger and unbutton his sleeve at the wrist because this kind of suit has real buttonholes there. Tom, boy, it’s terrible. Once you know about it, you start seeing it. All the time!”
True to Wolfe’s form, men who find themselves immersed in the tailoring culture may one day, be taken by this “vice” of a severe appreciation for a handworked buttonhole on a suit, as if the buttonhole could, on its own, signal craftsman quality, just by a single coup d’oeil. And, it seems that these men don’t want to talk about their fixation, since the entire experience feels like a lingering initiation into a select fraternity of “men in the know”.
If you have had the occasion to speak with a tailor or two, and you happened to be wearing a suit at the time, you may notice that most tailors seem to immediately direct their eyes to the lapel buttonhole on the suit you are wearing. Why? The answer may lie in the perception that it’s the fine details, like the buttonhole, that speak to the overall quality of a suit; or perhaps the reason lies within the overlooked notion that the way a buttonhole is sewn can be a form of a tailor’s signature, and serves as a means to unveil the identity of the tailor who prepared the suit. It is difficult to dispute that, although a well done buttonhole is subtle and simply stated, the buttonhole itself acts as one type of radar that can indicate the level of overall garment quality to others who know the craft.
Approach to Elegance
We can through observation, surmise that there may be two opposite “schools of thought” regarding how to embellish the fine details of a suit. One motto is “if you have it, don’t hesitate to (albeit lightly) flaunt it”. With this way of thinking, the full experience of the handmade suit includes leaving a working buttonhole open on the cuff (a practice said to originate with surgeons who at times, needed to unbutton their cuffs and “roll-up their sleeves” in order to work). These like-minded men may also prefer a fully visible label inside the coat which states the name of the tailor’s house and the full name of the suit owner. Strong pick-stitching and a single contrasting buttonhole thread color may be preferred. And, if taken to great lengths, fabric threads may be interlaid with gold or even with their full name (like the “famous” Scabal Private Line. No comment) and sewn into fabric derived from exotic animals to signify stately opulence.
We all enjoy a bit of flash and glory at times, and this approach to bespoke suiting is neither bad nor good, but just an indicator of how a person chooses to indulge in his suiting. This school of thinking would tell us that you will not see terra-cotta roofing on a starter home, nor a personalized sill plaque on a Ford Pinto.
Another approach when acquiring a handmade suit, is to embrace discretion and understatement while not compromising on quality. It is the difference between choosing an Aston Martin painted high gloss candy apple red or a customized lacquered steel grey color. Both choices produce an incredible result, yet the personality of these two car owners are likely, very different.
The discreet handmade suit owner derives pleasure from an inner knowingness of quality that is not obvious. Others may see this man of discretion as having an immaculate appearance with no clue as to why or how he carries off such a magnificent countenance. Milanese buttonholes, shoulder shirring, careful placement of the lapel notch, and hidden labels are things of pleasure to this man, and may only be understood among other comrades looking to earn their stripes in the world of understated elegance.
We all find pleasure in the feeling of belonging and a “sense of knowing”. Being discreet feels like being part of a respectable and exclusive club whose members savor the flavors of craftsmanship taken to a higher plain, and seek to understand the turn of a hand required to make a buttonhole stitch and even the personal story of the cutter in the house of their tailor.
The buttonhole inspires these reflections of the meanings and stories behind the finer points of tailoring. In taking the journey towards understanding the buttonhole, we must keep in mind that the buttonhole itself may also serve as a “thumbprint” to identify individual tailors.
To some, it may seem like there is too much fuss around the handmade buttonhole. Yet, making the buttonhole by hand can be a paramount task on a bespoke suit. In comparing buttonholes made by machine versus made by hand, machine-made buttonholes are first stitched, and then cut. Alternatively, hand worked buttonholes are first cut and then stitched. This leaves no room for error, since the buttonholes are cut after most of the work on the suit is complete, raising the bar to requiring perfect cutting and stitching of the buttonhole.
The Asolsa Lucida glossy buttonhole most likely originated in the Abruzzi region of Italy is also preferred in Paris, whose tailors (typically originating from Italy) refer to this style of buttonhole as the Milanese buttonhole. The silk gimp, key to the overall look, is usually from Guterman and is known as Agreman. For those who would really like to deep dive in the subject, please follow Jeffery’s blog (Made by Hand – The Great Sartorial Debate), which is, in any sartorial matter, second to none.
Now take a look as some buttonhole constructions of some well-known or more obscure houses. These pictures principally feature the Milanese lapel buttonhole. But as you can see on the Kiton’s examples, handmade buttonholes can also have different shapes and a more flat surface. Question of taste.
Paul Grassart :
Tom Ford :
Chittleborough & Morgan – Savile Row
Mariano Rubinacci :
Francesco Smalto Couture :
Brioni (wonderful front button hole) :
Cifonelli “Yack” wool sport jacket : milanese porn !
As an additional check for quality, and as explained in this interesting piece of The Economist: Intelligent Life, buttonholes should be slightly ragged at the back—little imperfections are the stamps of bespoke.
Huntsman & Sons :
Considering the hours of work put into creating the handworked buttonhole, this sole work of craftsmanship definitely deserves its moment of glory.
Sonya Glyn Nicholson – Senior Editor