Why do men's suits have buttons on the sleeves?

Updated April 17, 2017

Buttons on the sleeves of men's suit jackets serve practical and decorative needs. Jackets sleeve buttons that open and close mainly evoke status.

Centuries of Use

Buttons on suit jacket sleeves can be viewed, alternately, as a blessing or a curse. Men who dress meticulously prefer suit jackets with functioning buttons at the cuff. But the suits most men wear have buttons on the sleeves that are purely decorative.

Form Over Function

The Manhattan-based custom tailor and men's wear historian Alan Flusser traces suit sleeve buttons as far back as 225 years ago, to the reign of Prussia's Frederick the Great. The buttons would "encourage (soldiers) to use their shirt cuffs instead of jackets sleeves as handkerchiefs," Flusser wrote. Many modern men's wear dictates are rooted in military decorum and convenience.

Buttons' Appeal Lost

When mass-production practices took hold in the 20th century, jackets with functioning buttons on the sleeves fell out of favour. They were once known widely as "surgeon's cuffs" that could be unbuttoned and rolled up so doctors could wash up as high as their wrists.

Poking Holes in Functioning Buttons

Jackets with functioning buttons on the sleeves come at a price. Tailors say they present problems when it comes to alterations.

Nip-and-Tuck Nightmare

Having a jacket tucked in at the shoulders could raise the sleeve buttons too high. Shortening jacket sleeves at the cuff drops the buttons too low. If there's any advantage to jackets with buttons that don't open and close, it's that they're easily replaced.

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About the Author

A. Scott Walton began his journalism career in 1985 at the "Nashville Tennessean." His reports have extended to radio, television and the Web and he has written extensively for the "Detroit Free Press," the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution," the "Atlanta Voice" and many other publications. Walton holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Vanderbilt University.