The Competing Orthopraxies of Three-Button Suits in Japan

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There comes a time in every young boy’s life — at least in the Southern United States — where a blue blazer and khaki slacks no longer cut it for “dressing up.” Around sixteen or seventeen, the pants and the jacket need to originate from a single bolt of cloth. Accordingly, I inherited a number of suits from my equally tall uncle — an excellent golfer, and subsequently, a fan of the ’80s low two-button jacket.

I was grateful to receive such nice clothes and made use of them through college, but visiting Tokyo and then chaperoning a group of Japanese trade school students in New York, I couldn’t help but notice that there was something notably sharp about the standard Japanese suit. Was it the color? The slender cut? Knowing very little about suits, I had neglected to notice that the standard Japanese model had three-buttons, starting very high on the chest. Of course, high three-button suits began to explode in the United States again shortly after my discovery — somewhat spurred by fashion industry plot, somewhat spurred by natural aesthetic reactions to our fathers’ low two-button monsters. Now in 2006, the Brooks Brothers three-button has become a frat-boy staple, and while the three-button still dominates in Japan, the suits still tend to be slimmer and sharper, with tight high-water pants and well-fitted shoulders. Americans may have caught up but our diverse body types and expanding girth watered down the classic look.

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“Correct” (left) and “Incorrect” (right)

But there is an interesting quirk in the Japanese culture of the three-button suit. Despite the traditionally high levels of proper grooming in the mass culture, there are still a large number of Japanese men who button the bottom button of their suit jacket. As authoritarian style gurus at GQ will tell you, the first and second rules of Suit Club are that you do not button the final button. Of course, there is no practical, rational reason for this. According to “Ask Andy”, the fashion rule comes to us from a fat royal who could not manage to fasten the jacket over his stomach. From such humble beginnings, we now have a rigid rule — a Western orthopraxy, if you will — regarding semi-formal style.

Whether we like it or not, all meaningful fashion trends require a certain slavery to exterior form, not interior content. Our subcultural heroes — the Mods, the Teds, the Rude Boys, the Hippies — had a strict uniform. If they had taken a Protestant attitude towards faith and devotion, everyone would have gone off in individual directions, tearing the social fabric that bound them together in visual harmony. Japanese street fashion has been equally successful in its dedication to form over content: obeying the rules and dedicating time to the details lead a remarkable level of fashion extremism.

Faithful readers of Brutus should all know very well that the last button is not buttoned — anything otherwise would be uncouth. But there may be a natural Japanese resistance against the open final button, for young men are required to button all buttons of their school uniforms — the Prussian gakuran — in strict military style. On one hand you have the “correct” Western fashion rules that advocate an irrational open button, and on the other hand, you have the ingrained Japanese tradition towards a full-buttoned suit jacket. Confucian propriety would perhaps find something grating about intentionally leaving that last “t” uncrossed.

Depending on your chosen side in this small sartorial skirmish, one of these positions is right and the other one is wrong. I do not think the third-button buttoners are acting in response to the Western rule: They are just ignorant of the convention. No doubt there are Westerners who make the same mistake, but in Japan, there is a more solid philosophical justification towards the total buttoning. Japanese fashion magazines will never openly advocate the closed third button, but their decline in readership may launch a newer environment of social distinction — where the button symbolizes not only some archaic cultural regulation, but respective association with an old or new order.

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

23 Responses

  1. Hakan Says:

    A fat dude was the original reason that the bottom button wasn’t buttoned and that tradition remains one of the reasons why you shouldn’t bottom it nowadays. But the other, and frankly more important reason, is that suit manufacturers cut the suit so it will only be buttoned with the top button(s). Basically, having the bottom buttoned makes the suit look weird.

  2. nate Says:

    in the same vein, there are plenty of suits, and I own one, where not buttoning the bottom button looks odd. My regular jacket for schools tends to open a bit too much at the bottom and actually expose a bit of shirt, which looks 105% tacky. Then again, without fail, I’m the only teacher at any school who actually wears a the full suit to class.

  3. SB Says:

    Haha, when I made a over-10万円 suit at Richard James in Isetan Shinjuku, this guy told me not to button the second one (from two altogether) and insisted that it was so ON in England.

  4. suitwhore Says:

    when the bottom button is undone the bottom of your tie is visible which adds a nice colour pointer to your cock

    japanese suits are for people who don’t have any muscle mass

  5. suitwhore's revenge Says:

    when the bottom button is undone the bottom of your tie is visible which adds a nice colour pointer to your cock

    for those who have trouble finding it

  6. marxy Says:

    japanese suits are for people who don’t have any muscle mass

    Ah that explains my adoration.

    in the same vein, there are plenty of suits, and I own one, where not buttoning the bottom button looks odd.

    Is it a Nehru jacket?

  7. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    Always, Sometimes, Never.

  8. marxy Says:

    For Four-Buttons, it’s: Totally, Yep, Feel it, No Way Man

    Double-breasted requires a complicated matrix. I will spare you.

  9. nate Says:

    I think the muscle mass is the problem, not that I really have any. my suit has hung pretty poorly since I moved a kilo or two from my stomach to my more muscly parts.
    I guess not many of the regulars here get much of a chance, but junior high boys uniform jackets can look pretty damned good. Whenever I trade my jacket for a student’s we both end up looking cooler.

  10. marxy Says:

    One of the other reasons Japanese suits look so good is that tailoring is easy and cheap. Only the most privileged can eschew off-the-rack in the States.

  11. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    Zip & Clip.

    All my ties are clip-on and my suits are zip-up.

  12. Bri Says:

    This is very slightly off-topic, but the other thing I noticed when I lived in Tokyo besides the semi-regular sightings of third-button buttonedness, is that it seemed like the overwhelming majority of men tie their neckties in half-windsor knots, whereas in the U.S. I get the impression that the four-in-hand is the more common style. But perhaps it varies by region? I didn’t even know how to tie a half-windsor until I was in Japan a while; I learned because I felt really odd having a necktie knot that was so comparatively narrow.

  13. marxy Says:

    Where I am from, the half-windsor is considered to be somewhat mafioso.

  14. ls Says:

    the tie knot should also be related to body type: wide body, wide knot (double-windsor); skinny body, skinny knot (half).

    don’t forget your dimple.

  15. Momus Says:

    I look forward to the follow-up articles “Orthopraxy of the Japanese Expense Account Lunch” and “Hiroshi Fujiwara on 401(k) Trends”.

  16. guest Says:

    I’ve often noticed Japanese men buttoning their suits before sitting and unbuttoning them upon standing. Pretty sure this is the opposite of Wetsern protocol.

  17. marcus Says:

    Wow, that was uninteresting, even though I like fashion.

  18. Dave Says:

    Au contraire, it’s

    Sometimes
    Always
    Never

    Or where I work,
    No
    Nope
    Neither…

    How about orthopraxy of the bow tie wearer?

  19. Chris_B Says:

    I’ve yet to buy a suit here, the ones I’ve tried on have all been too tight in the shoulders and too droopy in the inseam. For me its Moe Ginsberg in NYC or nothing at all.

    As far as the number of buttons goes, I always thought anything but three was a bit queer.

  20. marxy Says:

    Wow, that was uninteresting, even though I like fashion.

    And an uninteresting comment to match! Like a boring jacket and pants.

    I look forward to the follow-up articles “Orthopraxy of the Japanese Expense Account Lunch” and “Hiroshi Fujiwara on 401(k) Trends”.

    Aren”t suits in Japan an environmental feature of Tokyo unrelated to the beholder’s employment status? It’s not like you’ve never been around people in suits in Japan in the subway, Momus. Oh wait, Nakameguro/Daikanyama Slow Life – right.

  21. OddManOut Says:

    “Is it a Nehru jacket?”

    What’s wrong with Nehru jackets ? I wore one to a wedding just a few days ago. I had purchased it a few months ago, not even knowing what a Nehru jacket was (I just thought it looked cool). But, since that’s probably the first outfit I’ve purchased in 10 years simply because I actually liked it. I assumed I would (as usual) be the subject of endless ridicule…but I’ve learned not to care. I got so many positive comments on it I couldn’t believe it (of course, I have no idea what people said after I left :P ). Maybe people over 30 have forgotten there supposed to be un-cool…and my youthfull constituants under 30 have simply never heard of them or seen them and thus have no bias…

    Ironically enough, most people thought I’d bought it in Japan (as I’ve been living in Aichi-ken for the past few months), given it’s vaguely ‘asian’ flavor.

    More irony, I only recently became aware of the bottom button open style (one a three button jacket) after comming to Japan. Most of my friends here do that. I even asked one why they do it. He said since they sit on the floor it stresses the botton button too much and eventually it pops off…which had actually happened to me a couple weeks earlier.

    As for the lack of muscle mass thing…yeah their style has definitely taken cues from their physicalities. It’s pretty hard to pull off the look so popular amongst fashionable nihonjin dudes if you aren’t inately slender like most of them are. Nearly everything that is the right length for me is egregiously tight in the chest and/or the sleeves are 1 – 2 inches too short. I’m even half asian and still I’m hard pressed to find even regular street clothes that fit over here…

    “Only the most privileged can eschew off-the-rack in the States”

    Huh ? Are you talking about having a suit custom made ? Because AFAIK, if you buy a suit off-the-rack in the $250 – $1000 range in the US tailoring is usually under $30 at the time of purchase. Least wise, I’ve never been asked to pay more than that. 12% or less doesn’t seem like that much to me, and you end up with the same thing, a suit fit precisely to your body.

  22. marxy Says:

    A bespoke suit is not just “tailoring” a off-the-rack. It means going from 0 to fit you perfectly. This is not cheap in the US, although technology-based solutions (like Brooks Brothers’ lazer thing) are making it more affordable.

  23. r. Says:

    An interesting follow-up to this entry would have been something that examines the origins and current practice of the phenom of 「先輩の第二ボタン」…David, enough time on your hands for this one?
    Hugs,
    R.