The Tailors' Thread

The Milanese Buttonhole: Beautifully Unnecessary

I don’t remember the first time I saw a Ferrari, but I do remember the one from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, because every kid dreams of ditching school someday, and what better way to do it in style?  It doesn’t matter if you’re not into cars, or if you’re too young to remember the scene.  I mean, just look at it.  You just know that day was going to be the best day in hooky history. 
Except it was a fake.  More on that later.
The Milanese buttonhole is one of the finer details of menswear.  Gaudy to some, fetching to others, its glossy, lustrous lines add a bit of finery to suits.  After all, since the lapel buttonhole once served a purpose but not longer does (other than to hold a boutonniere), might as well make it look pretty, right?  Think ornamental china and decorative soap bars.
Once, when jackets closed all the way to the top, the only thing you saw through the buttonhole was a button.  Then they started to fold over, because how else are you going to show off that amazing cravat?  The buttonhole that once was buttoned was now left naked, which is likely the reason that flowers started to be slipped in there.  Still, unless you also wear a monocle, your buttonhole is likely to remain unadorned with flora.  However, you can still ornament your lapel, albeit subtly, with the Milanese buttonhole.  
A hole is a hole, right?  Yes, but why not decorate it?  Possibly originating in central Italy, the Milanese treatment makes an otherwise inconspicuous buttonhole visually striking, an objet d’art sitting pretty atop the jacket’s lapel.  After the hole for the button is cut, a length of silk thread called a ‘gimp’ is laid around the edges.  A glossier buttonhole thread is then wrapped around the gimp and sewn through the cloth surrounding the buttonhole, and there you have it.  Easier said than done, of course, but leave it to the Italians to gussy up a pointless, but handsome, element of menswear.  JefferyD has detailed instructions on his blog, which is a treasure trove of sartorial gems.  Or check out this video:
 
There are many ways that a buttonhole can be made by hand, but the Milanese method is more time-consuming and arguably more recognizable than others, due to its post-cutting application.  The lowly buttonhole – once strictly utilitarian, now purely ornamental – has upgraded its status, inasmuch as it is regarded as one of the telltale signs of quality, like an automobile’s crest. Since this type of sewing and application can only be done by hand, the logic is that if such a meticulous production was done for a triviality, the rest of the suit must have equally as much effort and craftsmanship put into into it. While this is usually the case, it may just be hiding mediocre goods, much like the leaping black stallion of Ferris Bueller’s faux Ferrari.
The car shown in the movie is actually a kit car with a Ford V8.   Does that change how you feel about it?  Maybe, maybe not, but the same thing can be (and is) done on many suits.  I knew a guy in San Francisco who could put a Milanese buttonhole on any jacket for $50.  Since most people aren’t incredibly keen to strip your jacket off you, they may take your jacket to come from good stock.   Who cares if you pin an earring on a pig’s nose, as the saying goes, if all you notice is the earring?  On the other hand, a gilded turd is still a turd.
The fact is that the Milanese buttonhole, like most menswear ephemera, should be appreciated for what it is – a charming touch of glamour – and nothing more.  While generally found on higher quality suits, it can be added as a finishing touch to any jacket. Who cares if you slapped it on your H&M suit?  It’ll still look nice.  
 
The buttonhole, that is.  Not the H&M suit; they never look nice.

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All photos from JefferyD’s website tuttofatoamano.blogspot.com
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Peter Zottolo
Peter works in construction, but has an extensive collection of custom suits which he gets so that he can wear suits on the weekend. Even though he lives in San Francisco, he has never used the word "impact" as a verb. He writes about classic menswear and is one fedora away from being a complete dork.

8 replies »

  1. Milanese buttonholes originated in Paris. The silk thread used by French tailors in their making was normally from Milan, hence the name.

    • It is certainly popular there, but as Jeffery Diduch mentioned in his article in The Rake, the founders of two of “the most renowned tailoring houses, Cifonelli and Camps de Luca, were born and trained in central Italy, around the time that Caraceni likely disseminated” the asola lucida method.

  2. In the sixties in Chile, all lapel buttonholes were made with milanese silk thread,
    now we import suits from Asia, so we lost that delicacy.

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