God, I love a good button. Some are so nice I could eat them.
Particularly a mid-brown horn, with swirls and chips of dark brown and cream. It’s a beautiful little slice of nature.
Unfortunately, buttons rarely get much attention. Certainly compared to a jacket’s length, breasts or lapels.
Most of the time, customers assume there isn’t much to choose with buttons. And in one way they’re right: as a customer, once you have a type of button you like, chances are you won’t vary the material or finish across your wardrobe, just the colour.
But choosing that default is important. Buttons are the only native decoration on a jacket – by which I mean, decoration that is inseparable from it.
Buttons always make a big difference to a jacket’s style and formality, but particularly today when so few people wear a tie or handkerchief.
1. Contrast or not?
The way I’d break down button choice is this. First, do you want the buttons to contrast with the material of the suit, or jacket?
In general, buttons that stand out are more casual. So a smart dark suit will have buttons of a similar tone and colour (above). A navy suit might have navy buttons, black ones, or very dark brown.
One of the hallmarks of a blazer, on the other hand, is that it has buttons which contrast with the cloth (below). Not necessarily the traditional yellow metal, but lighter brown horn, or even mother of pearl.
Along with patch pockets, a contrasting button is one good way to indicate that a jacket is meant to stand on it own, rather than being part of a suit.
And the same goes for variation of colour or pattern within the button itself. Some dark-brown horn is very mottled and varied; some is plain. The more mottled it is, the more it will stand out.
2. What shoes?
The second question I’d ask is, what colour of shoes will you wear the jacket or suit with?
Other accessories are relevant too, but the biggest factor here is whether you’ll wear just black shoes, browns, or a mixture.
In general, buttons look better when they’re closer to the colour of the shoes. So a black or navy button will look best with just black shoes. Perhaps very-dark brown at the most.
A dark brown button can just about bridge black and brown shoes. And if you’ll just wear brown shoes, then certainly go for brown buttons.
In general, by the way, I’d avoid navy or grey horn. Neither is a natural colour, and they can look artificial.
Black will generally be nicer than navy, in the same way black shoes are. And mid-brown will have more interest than grey.
3. What texture do you like?
Third question: what texture appeals to you?
Savile Row tailors use matte, unpolished horn, which is my favourite (above). It’s dark, deep and subtle.
Most ready-to-wear brands used polished horn, which is shiny and perhaps stands out more. But to me it can look a little cheap and similar to plastic.
It’s said that Italian tailors use polished horn because they want the same look as big fashion brands; English tailors use matte horn because they can’t imagine anything worse.
And then there’s corozo, only really used in Europe and made out of nuts. Its texture is much more subtle, with swirls similar to wood.
Personally I only like corozo in lighter colours (above), as in darker ones those swirls are pretty much invisible. But one advantage of it is that it comes in a greater range of colours, and is more easily dyed.
Those three – matte horn, polished horn and corozo – are the major choices with suits and formal jackets, and the choice will largely depend on which texture you prefer.
4. Formality and style
Finally, the other more niche options. These are less suited to suits, and whether you consider them will depend on whether they reflect a style you like: sleek, trad, rural and so on.
The first alternative is metal, such as gold, bronze or steel. These are usually only used on blazers, or pea coats, and perhaps have associations with an older generation and old money.
The gilt-buttoned blazer seems to be rather fashionable at the moment, but whether you like the look will be very subjective.
Another alternative is leather, usually made up as four interwoven strips and sometimes referred to as football buttons – because they look a little like old-fashioned footballs.
Again, this is rather a look. Not as showy as gilt, but redolent of rural clothing and tweed.
Next is mother of pearl, which is beautiful in its texture, shine and two-tone colour. It comes in different colours – not just the white usually used on shirts, but off-white, pink, black and so on.
However, it’s best restricted to evening wear or other very dressy pieces. Many newcomers to bespoke get attracted to it – like flashy linings – but change their mind after a few years and revert to something subtler.
That’s it, without going into smaller areas like urea, covered buttons on black tie, deer horn on hunting jackets and so on.
All of them have their appeal, but do bear in mind how showy they can easily become.
Then again, at least they’re easy to change. Unlike picking the wrong cloth.
By the way, buttons inside a jacket should also usually be a nice horn – don’t be fobbed off with plastic. And anything on the outside of a trouser should also be horn or mother of pearl.
I personally liked mother of pearl on the rear hip pocket. It’s a nice tradition on Savile Row and adds a tiny touch of decoration to the rear of trousers. I’m less fussed about the internal buttons on the fastening of trousers. Horn is good there primarily because it is stronger than plastic.
Button sizes are measured in ‘ligne’, an old French system. In general, the sizes are 16L for shirts, 24L for jacket cuffs and 32L for the front of single-breasted jackets. Double-breasted jackets are usually larger, and overcoat buttons larger again.
There is a good ligne conversion chart on The Lining Company’s website here.
If you would like information on any of the imagery used here (all of which is from old PS posts) please ask in the comments.