Buttoned Up

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When I first wore my first three-piece tuxedo a while ago, I took every opportunity to unbutton my jacket and proudly display the sartorial elegance of my classic evening waistcoat.  Returning from the event, I reviewed the evening’s photos only to realize that this practice made the overall outfit look less sophisticated, not more so.

Sartorial Art Journal, 1904.

Sartorial Art Journal, 1904.

Historical fashion illustrations show that the earliest dinner jackets were designed to mimic their tailed progenitor as closely as possible.  This included having the fronts cut to expose much of the waistcoat and shirt bosom when the jacket was worn open.  In fact, it was physically impossible to close most of the original models as they were constructed without a button or buttonhole.

By the 1910s, the gap between the fronts of unbuttoned jackets was becoming narrower and buttoned fronts were more common, often in the link front style.  The closed-jacket option grew increasingly popular until it finally became the norm in the 1930s.  Around this time etiquette books, which had originally not delved into this level of eveningwear detail, began to specifically advise that jackets be buttoned.  For example, the 1922 and 1937 editions of Emily Post’s Etiquette compared the dinner jacket to the tailcoat by stating that the former is “held closed in front by one button“.  Similarly, 1937’s The New Etiquette dictated that “unlike the formal evening coat, which hangs open, the dinner coat is buttoned at the waistline.”

1931 Peter Robinson ad. (UK).

1931 Peter Robinson ad. (UK).

Personally, I have always preferred to button my regular suit jackets not as a matter of protocol but of aesthetics.  Tom Ford once referred to the practical benefits when he advised:

Always keep your [suit] jacket buttoned.  If I have one rule for men, it’s that.  It instantly makes your silhouette.  It’ll take pounds off you, just in terms of your shape.  Especially if you are being photographed, you really should have your jacket buttoned.

The benefits alluded to are an outcome of the most fundamental aspects of a suit’s design.  First off, jackets are cut based on the premise that they will be worn buttoned which means they will always fit best in that mode.  Secondly, a suit deliberately covers a man’s legs and torso with identical fabric so as to blend one into the other and thereby emphasize verticality and stature.  Breaking up the uniform appearance with a patch of tie or shirt at the waistline creates a more disjointed look, much like wearing a sports jacket and dress pants.

And when it comes to a tuxedo, there is an additional factor at play: a buttoned-up appearance simply looks more formal.  It says that the wearer took the time to look his best for the occasion whereas as jacket left hanging open suggest the wearer couldn’t be bothered to go the full mile.  It’s the same principle at play in military dress jackets: models that button all the way up to the neck have a noticeably more formal air than mess jackets constructed to hang open and reveal the garments beneath.

This principle remains true even when wearing the most formal of waistcoats beneath the jacket.  The unique use of lapels and silk facings on a black-tie waistcoat may initially suggest that it is to be treated as a decorative accessory and therefore merit more prominent display than a regular suit vest.  However, both its name and its design are clear reminders that its primary role is simply to cover one’s waist.  Its special low-cut opening is not intended to increase its visibility but, rather, to keep it largely hidden beneath the front of a closed jacket.  In this sense it acts much like an undergarment and a gentleman doesn’t go about parading such apparel at formal events.

Actor Gerard Butler.

Actor Gerard Butler.

david-gandy-comparison

British model David Gandy.

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Reader Role Model Joe from New York.

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Anonymous Reader Role Model from Vancouver.

Now, it can be argued that because a formal waistcoat’s opening mimics the opening of a buttoned tuxedo jacket – and its material mimics the jacket’s material – it’s justifiable to display the waistcoat.  However, the close proximity of the garment’s decorative features (buttons, satin revers and trimmed pockets) still makes for a much busier waist than does a closed dinner jacket.  In an outfit intended to emanate refined simplicity, I don’t view that as a good thing.

No doubt many people will contend that an open jacket can be just as formal and just as flattering as a closed one.  And I’ll be the first to admit the difference can be quite subtle when the suit is properly fitted as evidenced by the comparison photos above.  However, I’ve decided to limit my waistcoat’s future appearances to brief glimpses whenever I am transitioning between standing and sitting.  It will still look as elegant as ever, it’s just that said elegance will be visible to fewer onlookers.

11 Comments

  1. CharlesM

    Indeed, I had always been taught that a coat is always buttoned when standing and unbuttoned when seated, and that one should button/unbutton while in the process of changing from one to the other.

    I think a key phrase is “when the suit is properly fitted”. My observation in recent times is that a coat is left open because the wearer could not possibly close it around himself. Sign of the times, I guess.

    Reply
  2. wdwright77

    I have always worn my one-button and two-button tuxedo jackets open as I always wear a cummerbund or vest (waist coat) to cover the waist as well as braces (I can’t believe how many articles on the tuxedo say you cannot wear braces and a cummerbund together. It truly astounds!). I guess I’m asking if I’ve been doing it wrong all these years. It will indeed be hard to change, but I do love having people around me see that I am not afraid to wear a tuxedo and that it includes a proper waist covering in every case.

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      This is by no means a case of wrong or right; I view it more as a matter of better or best.

      Reply
      1. Jovan

        That’s the best way to think of it. I basically treat a dinner suit with a waist covering the same way you treat a three piece suit. You can get away with having the jacket open, but it’s best to button up most of the time.

        Reply
  3. Duncan Pike

    It should be pointed out that the reduction in polish, and therefore formality, caused by unbuttoning the dinner jacket can be advantageous. If one finds himself feeling overdressed, relative to other guests, or wanting to broadcast a more casual air, dispensing with this convention can relax his manner. In such a situation, (e.g. a Black Tie Optional event, where “Optional” has been taken far more to heart than “Black Tie”) an open dinner jacket should probably be accompanied by a commensurate shift in one’s carriage.

    Reply
  4. David V

    As my wife will attest, I am easily disturbed by the way many people choose to wear their clothes. This, however, is not one of those ways.

    Reply
  5. BW_UK

    Just a thought:

    Looking at all the photos of David Gandy, Gerard Butler and everyone else, the key problem is not unbuttoning the jacket — it works perfectly well with a well-cut suit when worn with a suitable matching evening waistcoat — it’s the tendency to put one’s hands in one’s trouser pockets that *truly* ruins the line…!

    Try going back to check your own photos of the event you mention and see if this applies! :o)

    Reply
  6. TFS

    Is it even possible to rent a tuxedo with the traditional low-cut evening waistcoat? I have been searching for a place that carries the classic black tie look for my son’s evening wedding, but everywhere I go seems to have only the high-buttoning vest that goes almost up to your sternum. Is purchasing my own he only option for the classic black waistcoat?

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      (Post author)

      I’m afraid so.

      Reply
    2. john Angelo

      Trt Paul Stewart in NYC, they make evening vests that are superb ,and truly others by coparison pale. They are not inexpensive but worth every dime if you want to look classic and ultra well dressed.

      Reply
  7. Toby Masson

    Bespoke is best. Rather than spending fruitless hours trawling the malls of Dubai looking for a Dinner Suit that would meet my exacting specifications (Single Button Jacket with high, peaked lapels in grosgain silk and working cuff buttons, trousers cut to the waist rather than to the hip with a “fish-tail” waistband and low cut waistcoat) I instead headed down to my Tailor of choice (The Whistle and Flute, Bespoke Gentleman’s Tailor in Satwa). Three fitting sessions and AED 2,700 (around $735) later and I was the owner of the perfect dinner suit. Topped off with my JM Weston Patent Leather dress shoes, Dunhill bow tie and Albert Thurston silk moiré braces, it’s a pleasure to wear, fits perfectly and looks fantastic.

    Reply

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