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by William Phips


I like to think of myself as a practical man.

I’m hardly unique in that regard but, as a member of the unfortunate group that will quote Gordon Gekko without a trace of irony, I feel I have as good a claim to that distinction as anyone. At least anyone with uncalloused hands.

Yet here I am writing what will eventually be about buttonholes.

Similarly, those that harbor “the secret vice” (custom tailoring and the mania for the marginal differences that go into it) aren’t frivolous fashion victims. Not outside of the internet anyway. If anything, the exact opposite tends to be true- they’re some of the more serious people you’re likely to meet. But being impeccably dressed isn’t an accident or even just a habit they picked up somewhere along the way. No man walks past the shiny designer stores on his way to a cramped tailor’s atelier without some appreciation for the craft practiced there.

Falling down that menswear rabbithole feels, at least at first, like a well-controlled descent. It’s all eminently reasonable at the start - a canvassed suit will long outlast a fused one and welted shoes are actually cheaper over time since they can be resoled. As you venture further and further into the land of marginal differences, the justifications however become more strained.

Then you eventually come around to purely ornamental handwork and your well-honed practicality collides with the desire for something entirely aesthetic. Even then there are degrees - good pick stitching is nearly invisible on wool and it’s much more subtle than the machine made version. If it’s not practical, at least it’s more discreet. Shirts are, however, a different story.

Machine stitched shirt buttonholes are smaller, more regular and, if anything, more durable too. But even someone who could never be accused of having a shred romantic temperament can’t help but recognize (when it’s pointed out) the beauty and skill and precision on display in those intricate, ever-so-slightly irregular hand stitches. They serve no concrete purpose but I’ve found those little Italian masterpieces (commissioned by a decidedly middleclass Medici) to be a poignant reminder that there are still people in this world who take an inordinate amount of pride in their work.

No one else is likely to ever notice. That little secret can be quite privately enjoyed even out in public. Just not during lunch. Lunch is for wimps.