By Brett on September 17th, 2017
Functioning buttons on a suit jacket sleeve are called surgeon’s cuffs. In the early 19th century, military field surgeons were required to wear suit jackets. In the middle of a battle, while treating wounded soldiers, the doctors would understandably stain their jackets. The ever practical tailors on Savile Row in London introduced functional (i.e. working) buttons on the cuffs of a jacket’s sleeve, so that the doctors could roll their sleeves up when needed. Since then, surgeon cuffs have been synonymous with carefully crafted and high-end men’s suits.
That’s the short answer, but let’s go a little deeper.
It’s important to understand that historically, the Savile Row neighborhood of London was inhabited largely by doctors. For reasons unknown (my research continues!) the neighborhood changed and tailors began to set up shop in the area. It wasn’t long until Savile Row became known as the suiting capital of the world, as it remains today. And relevant to our topic of working buttons holes, what happened during this transitional period in the neighborhood, was that the tailors started to build suits for the doctors with these functional buttons. And hence the namesake was born, the surgeon cuff.
And here’s something interesting about those cuff buttons: they mirror the pips, or decorative buttons, historically found on military uniforms to denote rank. There are some rumors that suggest that the buttons were originally sewn into uniforms to prevent cabin boys in the navy from wiping their noses on their jacket sleeves!
Now that you have a handle on the history, let’s talk a little about the style.
Surgeon cuffs are one of the most well known features of a high quality suit. They are truly a hallmark of custom suiting. In many of our suits, you’ll notice that we like to leave the last button unbuttoned. It’s a bit of a subtle sartorial nod to the heritage of men’s suiting. Also, we will often build our suits with a contrast thread color on the final button (or, sometimes all of the buttons!). But the takeaway is that relatively subtle bespoke details like surgeon cuffs are really just another way to let your personality shine through. You may choose to take advantage of these features or you may not. It’s entirely up to you.
Finally, it’s important to remember that once the surgeon cuffs are sewn onto a jacket, the sleeve length should not be modified. If you were to change the length afterwards, then the whole proportion of the buttoned cuffs will be thrown off. Work with a skilled clothier and you’ll be in good hands.
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