Writer and historian Robert Ryan explores how we can thank T.M.Lewin for the button-up shirt we know and love today.
What, you might think, took them so long? The oldest buttons in the world have been discovered in what is now Pakistan, dating from around 2000 BC, functioning mainly as an ornament or signifier of status rather than a fastening. The stitched buttonhole popped up in Germany in the 13th century. Better late than never, I suppose. Full button-fronted shirts, the style we all know and love, didn’t become a thing until the early 20th century, thanks, in no small part, to T.M.Lewin.
So, what did our predecessors use for shirt fasteners? Well, generally they didn’t. For confirmation, the torsos of Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice and Aidan Turner in Poldark immediately spring to mind. These costume-drama shirts of old – fastidiously researched by the costume departments – usually only have two or three at most, usually fastening through fabric loops, not buttonholes, and they undo just enough to enlarge the neck opening for the smock-like garment to be pulled over the wearer’s head.
Yes, shirts – even if ruffled or pleated down the front, depending on the fashion of the day – were pulled off and on like sweaters, which of course wasn’t good for any hairstyle, nor the cleanliness of the fabric if the gentleman used oil, cream, or pomade on his barnet.
Enter Thomas Mayes Lewin, a shirtmaker who set up shop on London’s Panton Street in 1898, before moving to Jermyn Street in 1903. Using the fact that buttonholes could, by that time, be accurately machine stitched (making them cheaper and stronger) and incorporated in a double strip of fabric called a placket to keep their integrity, he introduced the idea that buttons could go all the way down the shirt front, thus offering a far more comfortable and elegant way of dressing and undressing. Not that the idea caught on immediately; London Opinion and Today, a contemporary magazine, suggested the button-up shirt was a “novel idea”, neglecting to mention it was also the future.
Having a strip of buttons brought other considerations, such as how far apart they should be. Normally, you won’t be too worried about such details, apart perhaps from one: the second button down. It's position is critical, so much so that in his eponymous TV series, Jerry Seinfeld states: ‘The second button is the key button. It literally makes or breaks the shirt.’
Why? It’s all to do with how much gape you want at the top of the shirt when you’re not wearing a tie. If the second button is too high, then it can suggest a stiff, buttoned-up look in the wrong social setting. If it is too low, well, people might think you have copious chest hair or a medallion to show off. Interestingly, there is no industry-wide rule for a shirt’s stance – different shirtmakers have different placements.
Well, trust T.M.Lewin to have solved this knotty problem. For many of its styles, Lewin has gone for a high second button, which means that undoing the top one still suggests a certain formality, even without a tie, ideal for the office. However, the third button is placed so that if the wearer undoes that, it says “casual” and “relaxed” and not “male cleavage”. As a result, you are unlikely to find anything too navel-plunging at T.M.Lewin, which I guess is an issue Poldark or Mr Darcy, with their pullovers, never had to worry about.