Big buttons kept the troops from wiping their noses and mouths on their sleeves.
Dear Matthew Alice: My husband’s sport jackets have three buttons on the sleeve that seem to serve absolutely no purpose. One of his jackets has something that looks like a flap that the buttons are supposed to be holding closed, but the flap isn’t real and there are no buttonholes — just three stupid buttons. Why, WHY do men’s jackets have those buttons on the sleeves? — Rosemary F., San Diego
Like most questions for which no one has the real answer, there are two answers, the rational-sounding one and the goony one. Life being what it is, the goony one is probably correct. If you like your explanations tidy and tasteful, then the buttons are vestigial decorations, a sort of fashion appendix, left over from the days when wealthy men buttoned tight-fitting coat sleeves over their lace-cuffed shirts. Buttons actually were a fashion decoration mania a few centuries ago. The ruder, cruder explanation credits either (a) the French or (b) the Prussians with covering the cuffs of military jackets with big buttons to keep the troops from wiping their noses and mouths on their sleeves. Today’s cuff buttons are said to be the only reminder of the more disgusting days of yore. Actually, the two explanations are not incompatible. Mix ’em, match ’em. Take your pick.