What Is The Origin Of The Two-Button Cuff?

ernestjones

The Masters golf tournament gets underway tomorrow, and so in the interest of timeliness we present the above photo to fuel historic conjecture.

The photo is of Ernest Jones, one of the most famous early golf instructors and author of the classic tome “Swing The Clubhead.” Jones was an Englishman who lost a leg in World War I. But he found that he could still play top-notch golf balancing on one leg, if he allowed his body to sync with a natural swinging motion rather than use force or leverage that would upset his balance. He later came to New York where he gave thousands of lessons per year at an indoor space on Fifth Avenue.

Now, in the photo above you see that Jones wears a jacket with two sleeve buttons spaced apart, a distinguishing feature of heyday-era Ivy jackets. It also looks like there are working buttonholes on the sleeves. But when, how and why did this become the trademark cuff style at Brooks Brothers and many other Ivy clothiers?

After nearly 1,100 posts here, I’m starting to reach the point where I’m forgetting things, but if I recall correctly I’ve never come across an explanation for this. The unlined buttondown collar and natural shoulder are easier to speculate on. The collar came from the world of sport, and we have early historic documents revealing how it was prized by young men for its casualness and nonchalance. As for the natural shoulder, its lack of artificial pomp seems to perfectly complement the values system of the Northeastern WASPs who embraced its particular silhouette. It’s difficult to imagine a parallel universe in which WASP values and tastes are exactly the same, but the caste considers broad padded shoulders to be the proper look for American gentlemen.

I have no date for the photo above, but it would seem to be from the interwar years. I’d thought the matter would be further complicated by the fact that Jones could very well be wearing a Brooks Brothers jacket, as his studio was just a few blocks from the clothier. However, according to Wikipedia he did not come to New York until after the second World War, which I think would be too late for that photo (it is used, incidentally, for the cover of a reprint of a book on Jones’ teaching in which all the photos date from about 1920).

So is Jones’ jacket English or American? Probably English, but that still doesn’t answer the question how and why did the two-button become the standard Ivy sleeve cuff. Group speculation encouraged.

The Masters’ green jacket, incidentally, has a two-button cuff. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

35 Comments on "What Is The Origin Of The Two-Button Cuff?"

  1. Fully expecting Carmelo to weigh in here with his collection of vintage images.

  2. Sorry. J.Press Ready To Wear in the Heyday featured 3 button sleeves.

  3. This came up once before when I said that Press was “always” three and was immediately corrected by the readership, which produced period documents showing two-button cuffs on Press jackets.

    So shall we say that Press was mostly three button, while nearly everyone else from Brooks to Norman Hilton to Main Street was mostly two?

  4. Marc Chevalier | April 8, 2015 at 1:23 pm |

    The answer is simple, but ultimately unsatisfying: throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the majority of ready-to-wear sack coats, frock coats, and swallowtail coats had two buttons on each cuff. Brooks Brothers et al simply continued producing them. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, etc.

    Which begs the question: WHY did most of the Victorian/Edwardian ready-to-wear jackets and coats have two-button cuffs? We might need a 19th-century costume expert to answer that.

  5. If we are operating under the assumption that the two button cuff originated in England, I offer the following thought:

    Two button cuffs would be on tweeds and country clothes. Clothing that would be worn for hunts, touring the grounds, and all the other events that 21st century cubicle dwellers enjoy fetishizing.

    In the pursuit of those activities it seems much more likely that a man would need to use his hands for some semi-arduous task. This would likely be reason to roll back the cuffs of his jacket. Since said jacket was likely bespoke, the buttons would be functional.

    It would make sense that you would want to only have to undo two buttons rather than four or more if you were to be unfastening the sleeve frequently.

    If this became the norm for the English landed gent it is easy to see how and why it would leap the Atlantic and become the Ivy standard.

  6. Christian | April 8, 2015 at 1:41 pm |

    Because this is a small detail, I can see how it became an Ivy tailoring trademark simply because that’s what Brooks did, which went back to the 19th century. Of course as explored in the rise and fall essay, not everything Brooks did was embraced into the genre.

    Then I suppose the next question is why did it largely disappear in England, replaced by the more standard four buttons kissing?

  7. Archive disclosure: Heyday 2 button sleeve departure from standard 3 occurred primarily via summer wear (poplins, seersucker,
    Madras etc.) or winter corduroy jackets machine made for J.Press by Gordon-Ford.

  8. Mostly speculation here, but for what it’s worth…

    I recall reading somewhere that military uniform jackets got their cuff buttons as a way to prevent the men from wiping their noses on their sleeves, thus dirtying the uniform. I now have two questions that arise from this recollection in light of this post:

    1. How many buttons were typically found on 19th-century British uniform jackets?
    2. Were those buttons more often functional or decorative?

    I don’t know the answer to the former; I suspect, but do not know, the answer is “functional” for the latter, especially on officers’ uniforms, which were (always?) bespoke.

    The engineering of buttoned cuffs might help us answer some of the questions raised in the post. A single button on the cuff lacks stability; the two parts (or sides) of the cuff can pivot in relation to each other. Two buttons stabilize the two parts of the cuff in relation to each other; this is, I believe, part of why placket buttons on shirts have become more prevalent. Pivoting cuffs (a great name for a band, by the way) would look sloppy, whereas stable cuffs (not a great name for a band) looks neat.

    Two buttons are the minimum for stabilization; on country clothes, functionality takes precedence over display, so two would be enough. In contrast, military uniforms are more impressive with more shiny buttons, piping, etc., so the dressier, more formal town clothing probably took a cue from military uniforms and featured more cuff buttons.

  9. I have found same two buttons on the cuffs on a lot of late 1890s early 1900s coats.

    This is a 1904 picture of Italian poet Gabriele D’annunzio; note the two buttons on the cuff:

    http://s28.postimg.org/ms4uqealp/2yy.jpg

    Some 1890s coats:

    http://s21.postimg.org/byyzdxefb/Victorian_Cutterspt93.jpg
    http://s24.postimg.org/qzs87sqn9/Victog.jpg
    http://s14.postimg.org/bgbt9qlr5/Victf.jpg
    http://s12.postimg.org/rg6lffby5/1890s.jpg
    http://s24.postimg.org/aqphkzftx/finesecolo_94.jpg

    The American “Ivy” sack suit is the direct evolution of the 1890s sack
    Already since 1910s the American sack was called in the advertisments “conservative style”; two buttons on the cuff is a conservative feature.

  10. Marc Chevalier said:
    “Which begs the question: WHY did most of the Victorian/Edwardian ready-to-wear jackets and coats have two-button cuffs? We might need a 19th-century costume expert to answer that”

    This is not difficult to explain.
    In origin the victorians sacks,in 1880s-early 1890s had a full turn back cuff.
    Sometime this turn back cuff was simulated by a ribbon-gallon.

    http://s16.postimg.org/wqe6g43qd/fineotto1.jpg

    Sleeves buttons were only on that turn back cuff or under the ribbon,and there was place only for two buttons.
    When the turn back cuff and the ribbon were eliminated, remained by convention two buttons.

  11. Charlottesville | April 8, 2015 at 4:21 pm |

    Christian called this exactly right with the first comment above. Carmelo, you are an amazing source of information and vintage illustrations. Bravo!

  12. In my opinion the key for understand the American sack suit style is take note that is the true heir of the original 1890s man suit with short coat.
    Undarted,natural shoulder,roll lapels,two buttons on the cuffs,single hook vent,flat front trousers…is a continous line,a direct evolution.
    Take for exemple the famous “not break pants” feature.
    Why in the Ivy league tradition the trousers are a bit short with no break?
    Because when the cuffs on the trouser were introduced they were real turn up, so the trousers with cuffs were more short that the trousers without cuffs,and that until 1920s.
    The Ivy style maintained that feature because is conservative.

    In this illustration of 1920s the different rise between trousers with cuffs and trousers without cuffs:

    http://s21.postimg.org/sk587gqpz/N0936227_JPEG_192_192_EM1.jpg

  13. Ptarmigan | April 8, 2015 at 4:49 pm |

    It seems quite clear in the photo that those couldn’t be working button-holes, as the opening of the sleeve is stitched shut.

  14. It still remains that the jacket is a military tunic.

  15. TheHighCockalorum | April 8, 2015 at 11:04 pm |

    The older Masters jackets appear to be a version of a 3/2. I cannot insert a picture from my phone but do a Google search and it won’t take you long to find them.

  16. Roy R. Platt | April 9, 2015 at 11:29 am |

    In the early sixties when I started getting my suits and jackets at Brooks Brothers, two spaced out buttons on the cuff was the default option. The cuff buttons were added during alterations, and for some now long-forgotten reason, I decided that three button jackets should have three buttons on the cuffs, so many of my suits and jackets have three buttons on the cuffs (with working button holes, which was also an option at Brooks Brothers then).

  17. One of my old personal favorite men’s clothiers, “Huntington Clothiers” from Columbus, OH always had three buttons on their sport coat and suit sleeves. It’s very interesting as to why there are differences between certain companies.

  18. Careful using the word “always” as I’ve been called out on that myself. Two buttons here:

    http://www.ivy-style.com/affordable-american-made-remembering-huntington-clothiers.html

  19. Charlottesville | April 10, 2015 at 9:42 am |

    @Roy R. Platt

    I can say exactly the same thing regarding 2 button standard vs. the option for 3 working buttons on the sleeves of my BB sack suits, but I would need to update the timeframe to 1987 or so. I’m not sure when the last of the Golden Fleece sack suits vanished, but it was probably in the 1990s, and they still did working button holes t that point. A couple of my 30-year-old BB suits are still quite wearable. I would be surprised if the current offerings hold up that well. For what it’s worth, the 2-year-old J. Press 3-button sack blazer I am wearing today has two spaced-out buttons and, at my request, has cut-through button holes.

  20. A.E.W. Mason | April 10, 2015 at 2:28 pm |

    CC

    “Careful using the word ‘always’ . . . .”

    You’d make a good trial lawyer. How I love it when deposing witnesses who describe what they “always” do or “never” do. It’s an invitation to impeachment later at trial.

  21. I think people use the word colloquially to mean most of the time (as in “I always have pizza on weekends”) rather than as a literal fact, and that’s where the discrepancies arise.

  22. “Mostly two” is right for NH. I own and wear older (granted, post-Heyday as defined here) NH jackets that feature 3 buttons on the sleeves. Thing is, the spacing is nearly a button’s width. Unique. I think I’ve seen older Heyday era NH jackets with 3 buttons on sleeve, as well.

  23. Etymologue | April 10, 2015 at 4:13 pm |

    In multiple-choice exams, options that use the words “always” or “never” are less likely to be the correct answer than those that contain the word “usually”.

  24. This discussion reminds me of Steve Martin’s advice: “Always—no, never—no, always… always carry a litter bag in your car.”

  25. Carmelo – Although Ive enjoyed you pictures here and what you’ve written Ive just got to take issue with two things..

    First off in this image you described the difference in rise..when Im guessing you meant break, and also the trousers without the cuffs that do break will have it’s excessive cloth hemmed up inside..its not a case of that’s all the material we have so the trouser stops here…the leg is normally taken to where the shoe’s upper meets the sole unit, and you could pretty much have inches of excess cloth up in side the leg..this cloth also helps weigh the leg down in the same way a turn up does to help it sit better with lighter cloths especially .

    The no break trouser is again military influence the main two reasons for this that Ive heard during various years of discussion is one it gives a cleaner look because of the unbroken line and two its a very practical to not have your trousers swinging about in mud etc.. basically a high water..and because it would’ve typically worn with boots the higher break wouldn’t have exposed the wearer’s ankle to the elements.

    http://s21.postimg.org/sk587gqpz/N0936227_JPEG_192_192_EM1.jpg

    As for the two button cuff what you’ve written seems more than acceptable, I always thought that it may have something to do with ease of alteration… I don’t know if you’ve ever had to shorten sleeves, but it seems from my experience to only have two buttons really gives a the tailor less work.. ie not having to maybe needing to create new button holes as they shortened the sleeve..something a bespoke jacket wouldn’t have to have taken into consideration.. but that’s just guess work, I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s thoughts on it.

  26. bop
    Nice post, but most at one time wore boots and their pants had stirrups. I’d like to think post stirrups the gentry just began rolling their pants leg bottoms up to avoid horse manure, it became a fad that stuck.

    I wear pants with break and 1.5 to 1.25 inch cuffs, but then there is no manure in the streets. ;-).

  27. To go back to golf for a second, what’s going on with all the Masters’ players (Speith, Tiger, Rory) wearing white belts?

  28. Doesn’t seem so sudden or unusual and I’d hardly call it a sartorial sin, especially compared to all the far more odious ones.

  29. I guess I haven’t watched golf for a while; it stuck out as I was watching yesterday.

  30. White patent leather sucks, but somewhere I’ve still got a white wool surcingle belt. In the sixties plenty of white ground tattersail belts were available.

  31. Russel Granzow | April 13, 2015 at 2:06 am |

    The original question is misleading because it is backwards. The better question is, when and why did the convention of two buttons expand to admit of three or four?

  32. kencpollock | April 13, 2015 at 1:38 pm |

    In the heyday, Hilton jackets always had three well-spaced buttons on the sleeves, mounted quite high (with lots of thread wrapped around the shank).
    While Brooks always used two sleeve buttons on its traditional 3-button sack jackets, in the late 1960s it introduced “classic” 2-button darted jackets (like the ones Paul Stuart was selling), with three sleeve buttons. The apparent purpose for the difference: when looking at a whole rack of Brooks suits or sport coats, you did not have to pull each off the rack to see if it was a 3-button sack, or a 2-button darted; you could determine that by just glancing at the sleeve.

  33. Just a guess, union contract or gov. regulation?

  34. That’s right, Ken, I’d totally forgotten about that and where I first heard it.

    However I’ve had a vintage Hilton jacket that had the original buttons, two and spaced apart.

    It sounds like there was a lot of variation at each brand.

  35. Vern Trotter | April 14, 2015 at 11:13 am |

    Until fairly recent years, when everything went to hell, I cannot remember Brooks ever having anything but two button sleeves. Certainly not back in the late 1960s. I recall the two button front coats but they still had two button sleeves.

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