Why do men’s suits have buttons on the sleeves?

Dear Cecil:

There comes a time in every upwardly mobile young man's life when he has to face up to buying a suit. While doing so recently I noticed, as if for the first time, the buttons sewn on the bottom side of the coat sleeves. They had always been there, I suppose, but never before had they seemed so conspicuously useless. The salesman couldn't tell my why the buttons were there; neither could the tailor. Now I'm becoming obsessed. What's the scoop, Cecil?

Cecil replies:

Dear M.:

I don’t guarantee that the following is true, M., but it makes a good story, which is about all you can ask in this wicked world.

At one time, supposedly, coat sleeve buttons had an eminently practical function. It seems that Frederick the Great, ruler of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, used to enjoy nothing more than the sight of his troops neatly decked out in uniforms and lined up in rows. Only one thing spoiled the scene: the soldiers insisted on sweating, getting dirty, catching diseases, and bleeding profusely.

Since no one had the foresight to provide the troops with Kleenex with which to mop their brows, the soldiers made do as best they could with their coat sleeves. After a hard day’s skirmishing, said sleeves would be covered with unsightly blots and blemishes, and perhaps a vital organ or two.

Naturally this was unacceptable. Frederick pondered long and hard on what to do. Finally, the solution (or "der zolution," as he more likely put it) dawned: sew buttons on the top sides of the sleeves, and soldiers would scratch their faces open every time they tried to use their coats for a handkerchief. Thus was the snappy appearance of Frederick’s army preserved. B.F. Skinner would have been proud.

As the army uniforms metamorphosed into civilian dress, the sleeve buttons gradually migrated to the lower side. By this time, presumably, manners among the masses had improved enough that the threat of physical pain was no longer needed to encourage public decency. Now the buttons stay there for the same reason men still wear ties: it’s always been done that way, they look vaguely natty, and most men are so baffled by matters sartorial that it never dawns on them to agitate for a change.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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