In which Tom Wolfe, acclaimed author of The Bonfire of the Vanities, recounts his introduction to working buttonholes, the close-guarded shiboleth of menswear:
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! There are just two classes of men in the world, men with suits whose buttons are just sewn onto the sleeve, just some kind of cheapie decoration, or—yes!—men who can unbutton the sleeve at the wrist because they have real buttonholes and the sleeve really buttons up. Fascinating! My friend Ross, a Good Guy, thirty-two years old, a lawyer Downtown with a good head of Scotch-Irish hair, the kind that grows right, unlike lower-class hair, is sitting in his corner on East 81st St., in his Thonet chair, with the Flemish brocade cushion on it, amid his books, sets of Thackeray, Hazlitt, Lamb, Walter Savage Landor, Cardinal Newman, and other studs of the rhetoric game, amid his prints, which are mostly Gavarni, since all the other young lawyers have Daumiers or these cute muvvas by “Spy,” or whatever it is, which everybody keeps laying on thatchy-haired young lawyers at Christmas—Ross is sitting among all these good tawny, smoke-cured props drinking the latest thing somebody put him onto, port, and beginning to talk about coats with real buttonholes at the sleeves. What a taboo smirk on his face!
It’s the kind of look two eleven-year-old kids get when they are riding the Ferris wheel at the state fair, and every time they reach the top and start down they are staring right into an old midway banner in front of a sideshow, saying, “THE MYSTERIES OF SEX REVEALED! SIXTEEN NUDE GIRLS! THE BARE TRUTH! EXCITING! EDUCATIONAL!” In the sideshow they get to see 16 female foetuses in jars of alcohol, studiously arranged by age, but—that initial taboo smirk!
Ross, thirty-two years old, in New York City—the same taboo smirk.
“I want to tell you a funny thing,” he says. “The first time I had any idea about this whole business of the buttonholes was a couple of Christmases ago, one Saturday, when I ran into Sturges at Dunhill’s.” Dunhill the tobacco shop. Sturges is a young partner in Ross’s firm on Wall Street. Ross idealizes Sturges. Ross stopped carrying an attaché case, for example, because Sturges kept referring to attaché cases as leather lunch pails. Sturges is always saying something like “You know who I saw yesterday? Stolz. There he was, walking along Exchange Place with his leather lunch pail, the poor bastard.” Anyway, Ross says he ran into Sturges in Dunhill’s. “He was trying to get some girl a briar pipe for Christmas or some damn thing.” That Sturges! “Anyway, I had just bought a cheviot tweed suit, kind of Lovat-colored—you know, off the rack—actually it was a pretty good-looking suit. So Sturges comes over and he says, ‘Well, old Ross has some new togs,’ or something like that. Then he says, ‘Let me see something,’ and he takes the sleeve and starts monkeying around with the buttons. Then he says, ‘Nice suit,’ but he says it in a very half-hearted way. Then he goes off to talk to one of those scientific slenderellas he always has hanging around. So I went over to him and said, ‘What was all that business with the buttons?’ And he said, ‘Well, I thought maybe you had it custom made.’ He said it in a way like it was now pretty goddamned clear it wasn’t custom made. Then he showed me his suit—it was a window-pane check, have you ever seen one of those?—he showed me his suit, the sleeve, and his suit had buttonholes on the sleeve. It was custom made. He showed me how he could unbutton it. Just like this. The girl wondered what the hell was going on. She stood there with one hip cocked, watching him undo a button on his sleeve. Then I looked at mine and the buttons were just sewn on. You know?” And you want to know something? That really got to old Ross. He practically couldn’t wear that suit anymore. All right, it’s ridiculous. He probably shouldn’t even be confessing all this. It’s embarrassing. And—the taboo smirk!
Yes! The lid was off, and poor old Ross was already hooked on the secret vice of the Big men in New York: custom tailoring and the mania for the marginal differences that go into it. Practically all the most powerful men in New York, especially on Wall Street, the people in investment houses, banks and law firms, the politicians, especially Brooklyn Democrats, for some reason, outstanding dandies, those fellows, the blue-chip culturati, the major museum directors and publishers, the kind who sit in offices with antique textile shades—practically all of these men are fanatical about the marginal differences that go into custom tailoring. They are almost like a secret club insignia for them. And yet it is a taboo subject. They won’t talk about it. They don’t want it known that they even care about it. But all the time they have this fanatical eye, more fanatical than a woman’s, about the whole thing and even grade men by it. The worst jerks, as far as they are concerned—and people can lose out on jobs, promotions, the whole can of worms, because of this—are men who have dumped a lot of money, time and care into buying ready-made clothes from some Englishy dry goods shop on Madison Avenue with the belief that they are really “building fine wardrobes.” Such men are considered to be bush leaguers, turkeys and wet smacks, the kind of men who tote the leather lunch pail home at night and look forward to having a drink and playing with the baby.
God, it’s painful to hear old Ross talk about all this. It’s taboo! Sex, well, all right, talk your head off. But this, these men’s clothes—a man must have to have beady eyes to even see these things. But these are Big men! But—all right!
It’s the secret vice! In Europe, all over England, in France, the mass ready-made suit industry is a new thing. All men, great and small, have had tailors make their suits for years, and they tend to talk a little more with each other about what they’re getting. But in America it’s the secret vice. At Yale and Harvard, boys think nothing of going over and picking up a copy of Leer, Poke, Feel, Prod, Tickle, Hot Whips, Modern Mammaries, and other such magazines, and reading them right out in the open. Sex is not taboo. But when the catalogue comes from Brooks Brothers or J. Press, that’s something they whip out only in private. And they can hardly wait. They’re in the old room there poring over all that tweedy, thatchy language about “Our Exclusive Shirtings,” the “Finest Lairdsmoor Heather Hopsacking,” “Clearspun Rocking Druid Worsteds,” and searching like detectives for the marginal differences, the shirt with a flap over the breast pocket (J. Press), the shirt with no breast pocket (Brooks), the pants with military pockets, the polo coat with welted seams—and so on and on, through study and disastrous miscalculations, until they learn, at last, the business of marginal differentiations almost as perfectly as those teen-agers who make their mothers buy them button-down shirts and then make the poor old weepies sit up all night punching a buttonhole and sewing on a button in the back of the collar because they bought the wrong damn shirt, one of those hinkty ones without the button in the back.
And after four years of Daddy bleeding to pay the tabs, Yale, Harvard, and the rest of these schools turn out young gentlemen who are confident that they have at last mastered the secret vice, marginal differentiations, and they go right down to Wall Street or wherever and—blam!—they get it like old Ross, right between the eyes. A whole new universe to learn! Buttonholes! A whole new set of clothing firms to know about—places like Bernard Weatherill, probably the New York custom tailor with the biggest reputation, very English, Frank Brothers and Dunhill’s, Dunhill’s the tailor, which are slightly more—how can one say it?—flamboyant?—places like that, or the even more esoteric world of London tailors, Poole, Hicks, Wells, and God knows how many more, and people knock themselves out to get to London to get to these places, or else they order straight from the men these firms send through New York on regular circuits and put up in hotels, like the Biltmore, with big books of swatches, samples of cloths, piled up on the desk-table.
The secret vice! A whole new universe! Buttonholes! The manufacturers can’t make ready-made suits with permanent buttonholes on the sleeves. The principle of ready-made clothes is that each suit on the rack can be made to fit about four different shapes of men. They make the sleeves long and then the store has a tailor, an unintelligible little man who does alterations, chop them off to fit men with shorter arms and move the buttons up.
And suddenly Ross found that as soon as you noticed this much, you started noticing the rest of it. Yes! The scyes, for example. The scyes! Imagine somebody like Ross knowing all this esoteric terminology. Ross is a good old boy, for godsake. The scyes! The scyes are the armholes in a coat. In ready-made clothes, they make the armholes about the size of the Holland Tunnel. Anybody can get in these coats. Jim Bradford, the former heavyweight weight-lifting champion, who has arms the size of a Chapman Valve fire hydrant, can put on the same coat as some poor bastard who is mooning away the afternoon at IBM shuffling memos and dreaming of going home and having a drink and playing with the baby. Naturally, for everybody but Jim Bradford, this coat is loose and looks sloppy, as you can imagine. That’s why custom-made suits have high armholes; because they fit them to a man’s own particular shoulder and arm. And then all these other little details. In Ross’s league, Wall Street, practically all of these details follow the lead of English tailoring. The waist: the suits go in at the waist, they’re fitted, instead of having a straight line, like the Ivy League look. This Ivy League look was great for the ready-made manufacturers. They just turned out simple bags and everybody was wearing them. The lapels: in the custom-made suits they’re wider and have more “belly,” meaning more of a curve or flared-out look along the outer edge. The collar: the collar of the coat fits close to the neck—half the time in ready-made suits it sits away from the neck, because it was made big to fit all kinds. The tailor-made suit fits closer and the collar itself will have a curve in it where it comes up to the notch. The sleeves: the sleeves are narrower and are slightly tapered down to the wrists. Usually, there are four buttons, sometimes three, and they really button and unbutton. The shoulders are padded to give the coat shape; “natural shoulders” are for turkeys and wet smacks. The vents: often the coat will have side vents or no vents, instead of center vents, and the vents will be deeper than in a ready-made suit. Well, hell, Ross could go on about all this—but there, you can already see what the whole thing is like.
Ross even knows what somebody is likely to say to this. You walk into a room and you can’t tell whether somebody has real buttonholes on his sleeves or not. All of these marginal differences are like that. They’re so small, they’re practically invisible. All right! That’s what’s so maniacal about it. In women’s clothes, whole styles change from year to year. They have new “silhouettes,” waists and hems go up and down, collars go in and out, breasts blossom out and disappear; you can follow it. But in men’s clothes there have only been two style changes in this century, and one of them was so esoteric, it’s hard for a tailor to explain it without a diagram. It had to do with eliminating a breast seam and substituting something called a “dart.” That happened about 1913. The other thing was the introduction of pleats in pants about 1922. Lapels and pants leg widths have been cut down some, but most of the flashy stuff in lapels and pants goes on in ready-made suits, because the manufacturers are naturally hustling to promote style changes and make a buck. In custom-made suits, at least among tailors in the English tradition, there have really been no changes for fifty years. The whole thing is in the marginal differences—things that show that you spent more money and had servitors in there cutting and sewing like madmen and working away just for you. Status! Yes!
Yes, and how can these so-called Big men really get obsessed with something like this? God only knows. Maybe these things happen the way they happened to Lyndon Johnson, Our President. Mr. Johnson was campaigning with John Kennedy in 1960, and he had to look at Kennedy’s clothes and then look at his own clothes, and then he must have said to himself, in his winning, pastoral way, Great Hairy Ned on the mountaintop, my clothes look like Iron Boy overalls. Yus, muh cluths look luk Irun Bouy uvverulls. Now this Kennedy, he had most of his clothes made by tailors in England. Anyway, however it came about, one day in December, 1960, after the election, if one need edit, Lyndon Johnson, the salt of the good earth of Austin, Texas, turned up on Savile Row in London, England, and walked into the firm of Carr, Son & Woor. He said he wanted six suits, and the instructions he gave were: “I want to look like a British diplomat.” Lyndon Johnson! Like a British diplomat! You can look it up. Lyndon Johnson, President of the United States, Benefactor of the Po’, Lion of NATO, Defender of the Faith of Our Fathers, Steward of Peace in Our Times, Falconer of Our Sly Asiatic Enemies, Leader of the Free World—is soft on real buttonholes! And I had wondered about Ross.