Tops With Me: The Case For Fastening The Third Button


In our last post about Washington & Lee University in 1969, many were surprised — including myself — by how many of the young men had fastened the top button on their three-button jackets.

It certainly led to many speculations here and on our Facebook page. Was this a regional thing? Were the jackets made as straight-up three-button models, rather than with a lapel that wants to roll to the middle button? One reader took speculation to such a degree that he surmised that all these natty young men had been instructed by the photographer to button their jackets for the photo, and fastened the top buttons instinctively.

Over the years we’ve explored many quirks of dressing during the Ivy heyday and preppy ’80s, including wearing a crewneck sweater high in the front and wearing your oxford-cloth buttondown with the rear of the collar askew. But we’ve never addressed the merits — if there are any — of buttoning the top button on a three-button jacket. Your menswear textbooks advise against it — whether your jacket is English, Ivy, or Continental — and an unfastened buttonhole on one’s lapel is a crucial sartorial signifier for orthodox trads standing athwart fashion history.

Instead of a 3/2, you could call this style the 2/3, as in fastening two out of the three buttons:




I reached out to G. Bruce Boyer for his thoughts on the matter, and he wrote:

In the ’50s, “genuine” Ivy Leaguers — i.e., guys who were students at decent colleges and universities — buttoned either the middle or the top two buttons of their coats. Many jazz musicians, hipsters, blue-collar followers of the style, and rockers buttoned only the top button.

Richard Press — grandson of J. Press founder Jacobi — had this to say:

Washington & Lee’s 1969 alleged fashionistas were expert mimes of an arcane campus style that died when top-tier Ivies opened their doors to previously disdained student populations. Nevertheless, during the heyday, Fence, Porcellian and Cottage Club wouldn’t be caught dead buttoning anything other than the middle button.

This comment, by reader “Roycru,” takes a diplomatic approach:

So far, much of the evidence that any rules about buttoning your jacket existed before the invention of the Internet might be considered as hearsay in many courts.

On the other hand, pictures on websites like Voxsartoria and the several blogs that post scans of pre-Internet-era Brooks Brothers catalogs show many variations of buttoning. These pictures are evidence of the pre-Internet freedom men had to button their jackets (which, after all are their private property) any way they wanted.

After this post went up, I threw on a new herringbone sportcoat over a pair of khakis to run some errands. I fastened the top button, and it felt pleasantly mischievous. It also felt Japanese. For all of their scrupulous attention to detail, the Japanese are well known for the quirk of fastening the top button, as these images show.

We’ll end by putting the matter to a vote. Shall we say it takes 2/3 to win? — CC

[yop_poll id=”-2″]

22 Comments on "Tops With Me: The Case For Fastening The Third Button"

  1. You should have issued a trigger warning at the beginning of this post, jackets that aren’t properly fastened give me anxiety.

  2. The picture of the guy wearing the olive suit–a young Elvis Presley?

  3. In a comment, in one of the other posts, I told that I was gifted seven sport coats. Two were 3 button models that I really didn’t care for. I donated them to charity yesterday.

    I don’t own any other 3 button models currently, but when I did, I only buttoned the middle button.

    I see young men occasionally with the top 2 or all buttons buttoned. Gives an Edwardian look to the jackets, especially on a tall guy.

    Don’t really care how many buttons are buttoned by others, but for me, only the middle button.


  4. I grew up in the 1960s with a single mother who had herself grown up in the far-from-Ivy-League bastion of Moncton, New Brunswick. When it was time for me to learn how to tie a tie, she had to enlist a male neighbour to show me how to do it.

    However, from the time I got my first sport jacket (and they were all 3-button in those days), she was adamant about one thing: you only ever button the middle button. I have no idea where she learned that.

  5. Tobias Charing | December 6, 2016 at 2:29 pm |

    The unsightly top buttonhole with the stitching on the wrong side: one of the drawbacks of the ivy look that some of us remedied by switching to two-button jackets.

  6. FWIW, during my 1960s public high school years in Virginia it was not uncommon to see the top button buttoned.

  7. Granston Hughes | December 6, 2016 at 2:53 pm |

    Ben Silver and Charlie Davidson appear to agree with you.

  8. “Washington & Lee’s 1969 alleged fashionistas were expert mimes of an arcane campus style that died when top-tier Ivies opened their doors to previously disdained student populations. Nevertheless, during the heyday, Fence, Porcellian and Cottage Club wouldn’t be caught dead buttoning anything other than the middle button.”

    A few thoughts.

    If by “arcane campus style” Mr. Press means Ivy, then let’s aim for clarity. The look not only didn’t die but continued to thrive — in certain circles, that is. It may have given up the ghost in New Haven and Cambridge (we may guess other forms of good taste did, as well), but not in Charlottesville, Lexington, Chapel Hill, and other Southern college towns. The yearbook photos (wanna see more?) are around to confirm as much. The look moved South, I’d posit.

    Most of the gents in the W&L Calyx pictures have chosen to button the jacket at the middle button. The top button buttoning movement was, it seems, diminutive. More of syndrome than a movement, perhaps.

    Davidson College, bastion of Southern Presbyterian gentlemanliness, 1969 —

    CC, see if you can find the high rise khakis:

    No photographer around to tell this chap to button the top button, and he’s no bumpkin!

    Buffalo plaid coats–yes!

    Flannel shirts over OCBDs? Right on.

  9. Marc Chevalier | December 6, 2016 at 3:49 pm |

    Before the 1950s, every three-button jacket made by Brooks Brothers had a top buttonhole which was finished on both sides. (In other words, it didn’t have attractive stitchwork on the outside only, and plainer stitching on the hidden side.)

    There’s a reason for this: it allowed the wearer to choose whether to button up the top buttonhole, or to leave it unbuttoned and flipped over via a 3/2 or 3/2.5 lapel roll.

  10. It’s about proportions as much as buttons. By fastening the top button you are changing the drape of the jacket so that it covers slightly more of your tie and shirtfront. A long shirt-and-tie window visually lengthens the torso.

    If you have a near ideal physique, you can likely button or not button with equally good result; if one is particularly tall and lanky, fastening the top bottom may be the preferred option. If one is of shorter stature or on the er, portly side, they would probably look best leaving the upper button undone.

    The decision is an easy one: try both in front of a mirror.

  11. “Arcane”–truth to this.

    Perusing the yearbooks ’72 to ’79, what’s interesting is the presence of what we may refer to as the Ivy rebel. A rare sighting, but there he is–sack coated, button downed, repp tied, and loafered. An island in an ocean of long hair, sideburns, bell bottoms, flared collars, and ankle length boots.

    Over half the time, the Ivy rebel looks to be older (40s and up) and sporting a crewcut or flat top. “Take that, you hippies.”

  12. SE
    Those “flannel shirts” are actually CPOs or similar. Heavy sort of wool shirt jackets. In HS in the sixties Pendleton’s plaids and solids were popular or actual US Navy CPOs. Note the satin facing inside the plackets and collars.

  13. I gave up on 3/2 jackets when they became so hard to find. All my stuff now is 2 button. But I don’t recall ever buttoning the top button on a 3/2 when I was a teen growing up in the 60’s.

  14. What a fantastic belt! It seems like a surcingle belt that can be perfectly adjusted to one’s waist.
    Where can I acquire such a belt as the one in the second picture?

  15. Like Wriggles, I don’t ever recall buttoning the top button; always the middle on a 3/2 jacket or blazer. I would feel as if I were wearing a jacket meant for the early 1900s, all buttoned up. That’s too stiff for me. Most of the time, I just leave the jacket open. It seems to be the most comfortable and the easiest solution.

  16. Anglophile Trad | December 7, 2016 at 4:16 am |

    With all due respect to Mr. Press, it is Mr. Boyer who reflects my own observations.

  17. tedtypes
    The adjustable belt is from Chipp, but I’m guessing it’s an old Trafalgar or Dooney Bourke. Ralph Lauren does some nice ones occasionally in wool (my preference) or cotton with real brass hardware. The RL are not made in England anymore, but China.

  18. Christian
    I just noticed the Survivalon jacket ad in the sidebar, is the great Bert Pulitzer still associated with his creation from the 70s?

  19. Yes Mac, Bert reached out wanting to come aboard for the season.

  20. @ Eddie Burke

    I also leave a jacket open most of the time. But, I have one rule, I never wear a jacket, unless I CAN button it, and I usually like to wear a jacket buttoned while walking, down the street, or into a room. Then, I unbutton.

    A quirk of mine.

  21. EVAN EVERHART | March 28, 2018 at 3:29 pm |

    My “Rule”; bottom button OK on paddock suits, or excessively high buttoning jackets (my 1920s BB suit works for this, or my hacking jackets – if I’ve fastened the bottom button, I don’t button the others!), middle button all others, and top button if it’s cold! If it works, go for it! But to be fair, most suits/jackets look awful with the bottom button fastened; they’re simply not cut out for it on the same note; most modern suits/jackets aren’t cut for functionality in the least – see low arm holes, short sleeve inseams, and bizarrely high lapel/collar gorges which make it so that you can’t actually turn the collar up properly and have it meet in the middle, or look right even when it’s down. With Ivy/Traditional clothing form follows functionality, that’s why they’re timeless.

  22. I agree with tmjm’s mother. Only the middle button shall be fastened on a three-button jacket. On a two-button edition, only the top one. Any other way and the whole ‘line’ of the wearer changes, and not for the better.

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