After doing some diligent Google searches it seems there is no consensus. A few different tales exist as to why suits have sleeve buttons.
Theory #1: The commander tends to change throughout the stories, but the foundation remains the same. It goes something like this: An army commander was tired of the slovenly appearance of his troops. How they wiped their noses, wounds, and all other sorts of bodily fluids on their sleeves. To prevent his troops using their sleeves as Kleenex he had buttons sewn on the sleeves to it would scratch their noses and deter the men from unnecessarily dirtying their coats.
This is refuted because the placement of the buttons would not be enough to prevent using your sleeve as a handkerchief as you can simply rotate your wrist and have a space free of face-scratching hazards. But some claim the original placement of buttons was around the cuff rather then up the sleeve, this may have had slightly more impact on the nose-wiping phenomenon
Above is a photo of British military uniforms used in the Revolutionary War. The cuffs on the jackets are encircled in buttons which simply adds to the evidence in favor of theory #1.
Theory #2: This is a double whammy. Essentially for the versatility sleeves had buttons, working buttonholes mind you- a surgeons cuff. Some said it was for surgeons to be able to unbutton and roll up their coat sleeves as to keep them out of blood and guts. Another idea, quite similar, was for soldiers to roll down their sleeves, made purposely longer, during the winter to cover their hands for extra warmth.
Here is a photo of a surgeons cuff. It would make it much easier for medics to roll up their sleeves on the battlefield to keep clean.
Theory #3: Another idea as to the use of sleeve buttons was for handkerchiefs or gloves. It was a place where men, and soldiers, could hook their items. Possible, but not nearly as cleaver or entertaining as the first theory.
Theory #4: This has been floating around simply because of its common sense approach to the whole idea. Some have said it was just a place to store extra buttons. This is feasible. Although, why wouldn't tailors put the buttons in a safer place (inside the jacket) as they do today?
Had anyone heard anything else that may be the cause of buttons on suit sleeves? Let us know!
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