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.
“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.