The male cleavage
Published On 11/12/2014 12:46 PM
About a year ago, Mr. Fazio, the men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, bought a slim-cut white cotton shirt from a well-known Italian label, the kind of sumptuous basic that should have taken him anywhere.
“I’ll get it out and put it on, but no way,” Mr. Fazio said. What’s holding his $375 investment hostage? “The buttons are too low,” he said.
Pants can be hemmed, shirts can be darted. But the way buttons are spaced down the front of a shirt — known in the industry as “stance” — is forever. Frustration with poor button stance is so universal, even Jerry Seinfeld talked about it with George in the final episode of his series. “The second button is the key button,” he said. “It literally makes or breaks the shirt.”
Let’s open Pandora’s box. If that second button is set too high, a shirt appears awkwardly buttoned-up, even with the collar open. Undoing the second button can drop the shirt opening too low. If the second button is too low to begin with, you’ll need a tie. But then, because the first two buttons are so far apart, the shirt will likely gap open between them.
Button stance is not standardized the way neck sizes and sleeve lengths are; individual labels may be consistent, but the industry is not. The stance is never listed for the customer, and eyeballing it takes experience.
Tim Gunn of “Project Runway” finds it exasperating. “It’s a very fundamental issue, but we’re so accepting of it,” he said. “I’m surprised there’s been no fashion outcry.”
No one is immune. Most guys aren’t going for a nerdy schoolboy look unless some irony is involved. And for many men, there is a professional issue.
“With the line of work I’m in, my lifestyle, it’s no tie,” said Jim Kloiber, 41, an executive at the public relations firm LaForce & Stevens in New York.
“That said, I need to look presentable — not too casual or showing chest hair, so that second button has to be right.”
For Brennan McGrath, 27, an architect at Ryall Porter in New York, modesty is a consideration. “It just looks corny when it goes too low, like you’re begging for attention,” he said. “The whole male cleavage thing.”
Ah, the Fabio factor. Dan Wolman, 29, a lawyer in a prominent Chicago firm, was pointed: “A guy rockin’ out his chest hair ... well, it just sends a message: ‘Here’s what I’ve got going on underneath.’ It’s a weird vibe, especially for the office.”
As strongly as the issue resonates with men, shouldn’t it be easy, from a design standpoint, to address? The men’s wear designer Michael Bastian, who described himself as “obsessed” with button stance, learned the secret at Charvet, the shirtmaker founded in Paris in 1838.
“Where you want it unbuttoned to, that’s where they put a sticky dot, and everything else spins off that button,” Mr. Bastian said. “That makes the difference between a wonderful shirt and an amazing shirt.”
But not everyone can afford custom tailoring, and telling guys to shop with a tape measure seems unsportsmanlike.
An informal Manhattan survey of more than two dozen labels shows the distance from first to second button ranging from under two inches to more than four inches. Stances are higher among European shirts, including Brioni, Etro and Balenciaga, and more moderate with Americans like Thom Browne, Paul Stuart and J. Press.
Unexpectedly, one shirt from Dolce & Gabbana, that chest-friendly Italian label, allows just 1 5/8 inches between the collar and second button. Only Urkel would button that high. But if you don’t, the third button is another 3 1/2 inches down. Cue “What Is Love” by Haddaway.
Why haven’t shirtmakers established a golden mean?
European makers tend to separate church and state: there are shirts to be worn with ties, and there are sports shirts. Here, where the line is blurred, we see incompatible high and low stances.
Another factor, Mr. Bastian suggested, may be that some manufacturers are working off old patterns, from a time when men always wore ties.
Fortunately, as Mr. Fazio notes, the market is moving toward a hybrid button stance. Brooks Brothers, J. Crew and Bergdorf Goodman’s private label, for example, all place the second button at 3 1/2 inches. Todd Snyder, the men’s design director at J. Crew, said it had revamped its shirt model and found that this measurement gives the most versatility. We at KAAPUS follow the same standards. Shop with us at www.kaapus.com
This compromise will not please everyone, of course; men who are accustomed to the European shirtmakers may sniff. Let them. They can put on a tie, or undo the second button and wait for Saturday night.