Pleats, Buttons and 3 Roll 2 – From Resident Ivy Historian Marc Chevalier

Marc Chevalier is our FB Group historian, regularly posting amazing historical essays. Here are three of them.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Mr. Chevalier has posted a whole collection of these essays on the Facebook Group, as well as providing a lot of keen insight.  He’s invaluable.  – JB

 

IVY STYLE AND PLEATED TROUSERS: WHY THE DISCORD?

For at least as long as Ivy has been categorized as a style, it has been specifically associated with plain-front —not pleated— trousers. Not to say that all plain-front trousers are, by definition, Ivy in style … but rather that all Ivy-style trousers, by tradition, have plain fronts. But why?

As usual for Ivy style, the origin of its predilection for plain-front goes back to an era when tailored American Ivy menswear essentially crystallized: the early 1910s. At that time, pleats were not to be found on ANY trousers made and sold in the United States. (More below about the history of trouser pleats.) As the 20th century progressed and American tailoring as a whole began to include —indeed, promote— pleats as an option, Ivy style stuck to the trouser template of the early 1910s … just as it did with sack coats.

(Perhaps the larger question is, why the stubborn adherence to style details from just before World War I? One nostalgic possibility: it was a way to hold onto the twilight moments of a world, a way of American life, which WWI and its aftermath obliterated. Perhaps?)

The history of tailored trouser pleats in the Western world —I’ll focus on non-military wear, and on pleating rather than shirring (which already existed on mens trousers in the 1830s)— has murky and anecdotal beginnings. According to “those who should know”, a client walked into a Savile Row tailoring house in the early 1900s and requested pleats for a pair of sporting trousers (probably for tennis). Word spread among the Empire’s upper classes, and pleats began to be requested more and more from bespoke tailors.

It wasn’t until the early 1920s that pleats appeared on off-the-rack trousers and plus-fours in the UK. In America, the process took longer: its bespoke tailors began to offer pleats in earnest in the early ‘20s, and American ready-to-wear clothing manufacturers started to include pleats on trousers and plus-fours in the decade’s second half. Nationwide demand took off in the mid 1930s, and continued unabated until the mid 1950s: right at the time that Ivy style —with its deathless devotion to plain-front trousers— became mainstream.

 

THE ORiGIN OF THE TWO-BUTTON SLEEVE ON IVY SACK COATS

It’s one of those curiosities of Ivy style: why two buttons specifically, rather than three or four or even just one?

Before we delve into a (partial) answer, keep in mind that not all Ivy sack coats have had just two buttons on their sleeves: J. Press’s jackets tend to have three buttons. Even so, the two-button sleeve remains a stereotypically Ivy detail in the public’s mind, and most “mainstream Ivy” menswear manufacturers during the style’s heyday stuck to two buttons for their sleeves.

The ‘Ivyness’ of two buttons is rooted in the fact that Ivy sack coats, despite slight variations over the decades, are essentially frozen in time: in the early 1910s, specifically. And in the early 1910s, a two-button sleeve was the norm for virtually ALL types of tailored jackets for men, from sack coats to frock coats and tailcoats. From the late 1910s onward, however, that two-button norm gave way to a growing public preference for three or even four buttons. Only Ivy sack coats —most famously Brooks Brothers’s— continued to be made with only two buttons on their sleeves … year after year, decade after decade. Over time, what had once been the norm for every type of tailored jacket became associated with Ivy sack coats only. On those sleeves, it’s always 1912.

THE ORIGIN OF THE “THREE-ROLL-TWO”
The 3/2 roll has its origin in the earlier 4/3 roll, when sack coats had a four-button front. Theodore Roosevelt (see photo below) often wore sack coats with a 4/3 roll.
The story behind it: in the late 1890s, a change in men’s fashion dictated that jackets’ previously high opening should become lower. However, some American men declined to rush out and purchase new jackets with the lower opening: instead, these fellows re-pressed their old jackets’ lapels so that they rolled down to a lower stance. This rendered the previously-utilized top button and buttonhole useless. Consider it an example of Yankee ingenuity at the service of Yankee thrift.
In the early 1910s, Ivy League college students did the same thing to their three-button jackets when fashion dictated that the opening should dip even lower than it had in the late 1890s. The truth is, today’s 3/2-roll sack coat is hardly any different from its 1912 ancestor.

It’s a telling detail that, up until fairly recently, the top buttonhole on high-quality 3/2 sack coats was “finished” on BOTH sides of the left lapel … ostensibly so that the wearer could button it up if he so chose. This double finishing was done even on lapels which had been constructed so that they couldn’t be rolled upward! A “sign of quality”, albeit superfluous.

 

By Marc Chevalier

11 Comments on "Pleats, Buttons and 3 Roll 2 – From Resident Ivy Historian Marc Chevalier"

  1. It might be worth mentioning that the ‘modern’ buttonhole in the upper portion of the lapel (the buttonhole where formerly flowers and watch straps and race passes were inserted) originate from the redundant buttonhole of a 4-roll-3.

  2. JJ,
    I’m not sure apout that. I believe that button was at one time fastened when popping the collar in blustery weather. I have one coat on which I can do that, although I have not done so. Inexpensive options are not superfluous.

  3. Frederick J Johnson | December 6, 2021 at 10:41 am | Reply

    Somehow the portion of the article regarding pleats vs flat front trousers seems incompletes.

  4. The spacing of the two-button sleeve is unusual as well. It almost looks like a third button is missing in the middle. Any ideas on how that came about?

  5. @ whiskeydent – Looking at the sleeve buttons on some of my old sacks, that spacing was typical.

  6. A fascinating history of some key ivy details! Thanks for this post! I tend to prefer pleated pants, which I know is coloring outside the lines. I just think they look better on me.
    When it comes to buttons, there is something very practical about their number and placement on sack jackets. As Hardbopper mentioned, when it’s blustery you can fasten the jacket higher up and pop the collar to keep out the cold air. Having just two sleeve buttons also makes a lot of sense to me. Who really needs four buttons lined up so closely when two can do the job without clutter or fuss?

  7. Charlottesville | December 6, 2021 at 3:52 pm | Reply

    Thank you, Mr. Chevalier, for 3 interesting history lessons. I hope there will be more of these.

    I note that my newer 3/2 sack suits and sport coats have 3 sleeve buttons, but my older Brooks Brothers suits and sport coats, as well as one sport coat from J. Press, all have 2 sleeve buttons. In the mid to late 80s, I think I recall that some coats had 2 and others 3 sleeve buttons, but the higher end BB suits came with the sleeve buttons in a separate envelope, and the customer could choose any number up to 4 to be sewn on each sleeve, with or without working buttonholes. Of course custom orders would be made with the number of buttons the customer preferred.

  8. A peripheral comment on the “no pleats” issue. The admonishment of the no pleats on men’s trousers is also made perfectly clear in TOPH (p.142 if you are interested). Now in my seventh decade, pleats appear on all of my trousers and make for a nice gentlemanly appearance as well as increased comfort. My thinking of the “pleats are wrong” edict by Ms. Birnbach was that she was writing for the prep school age reader.

  9. @elder prep It seems to me that a good rule of thumb is that when you are younger (and don’t know how things work) you should generally conform to the norms. Then, the older you get (and understand how things work) the more you can do whatever the hell you want!

  10. :AndrewK247 As per your “the older you get” comment, I’m currently enjoying just what you suggested, doing what I want. Also, I do understand how things work, not that I always agree on what the “things” are. Cheers!

  11. “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”

    Attributed to Pablo Picasso

    When I post pictures of myself with an unbuttoned collar and a loosened tie, I quote that regularly. – JB

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