One of the curiosities of modern times is that purposeless adornment needs explanation. Buildings with even the slightest hint of ‘decoration’ – nowhere near the gauche cherubs and unicorns of mish-mashed Neo-Classical – are considered too haberdashed, the wearing of bow ties and buttonholes prompts questions of ‘What’s the occasion?’ It seems any extravagance of design, any fanciful curlicues need an excuse superior to the ancient patrician partiality to prettiness; in fact, even for the heirs of the world’s gilded dynasties, ornamentation is rapidly losing its lustre. The feverishly maximalist Victorians may well be chuckling from their celestial heights should they be witnessing such an extraordinary about-turn; apartments of ‘luxury’ are nevertheless plain: no pictures hang from walls, no objects line the mantelpiece and ‘deluxe’ retreats are little more than native huts with plumbing.
In all this shedding of embellishment, some gentlemen have seen it fit to discard their ties. The most popular adjustment that occurs in this case involves an unbuttoning of one or two of the upper shirt buttons; the most important button being the collar button itself. However, some are not as willing to unbutton and prefer all shirt buttons to be fastened whether wearing a tie or not. My grandfather, quite oblivious to the trend, has recently taken to this practice; slender, luxe-beatnik chaps – a successful cross between a John Steinbeck and Marc Jacobs – employ it as their trademark. It has a certain ‘geek chic’ appeal, in the right context, and it takes a rare élan to make it work properly. However, it is not an aesthetic that has universal approval.
I remember a university friend remarking on a strangely violent anger that brewed inside him on seeing an innocent model of this particular look on the High street, an ‘indescribable and incongruous feeling of hatred.’ Another gentleman I met at a party shook his head in disbelief at the presence of the trend in our midst; ‘Why do they feel the need to do it?’ Some remark that it ‘just looks wrong’, that it is a case of irritating indecision;‘…either you wear a tie, or you don’t.’ Others suggest that it stems from a peculiar desire to alienate ties entirely; the argument being that an unbuttoned shirt is simply a shirt without a tie, whereas a buttoned shirt without a tie is a rejection of the modern purpose of the tie – to upgrade a shirt from casual to formal status, that far from being apparently conformist, the buttoned-up-shirt-without-tie is actually rebellious.
The truth is, and the pun must be excused, that comprehensive buttoning reveals nothing; the traditional charge of recently relaxed times might be that one who buttons all is a prim puritan. However, convention has little to do with why young men of the skinny denim persuasion feel the need to button up. It’s a quirk, and in some cases rather charming. It’s odd, which is probably why to those that employ it, it is so appealing. The norm is now to unbutton, whatever the climate and whatever the occasion. Not so long ago, men who considered themselves gentlemen wouldn’t have ventured out without some form of necktie. Unbuttoned collars, in the early part of the century, were rather uncivilized and only permissible when indulging in physical exertions – land work and sporting actitivies. Not the sort of thing we now like to pair with suits at evening soirees and matrimonial occasions. As improper as the buttoned collar may be to a contemporary eye, and as uncomfortable as it might be for the wearer, there is a sweet obedience to the practice. Unbuttoning is, frankly, quite lazy.