The “Milanese” Buttonhole- an American Invention?

“Milanese buttonhole” on the lapel of a Smalto, one of Paris’ better-known tailors with Italian roots

First of all, you won’t find one of these buttonholes in Milan, so how is it that many people refer to it as such? Several possible reasons. One of the key ingredients is gimp, the thick, stiff cord around which is wrapped very fine silk thread, and this gimp is often referred to as “Milanaise” in French, where they also refer to the buttonhole as a “boutonniere a la Milanaise”, or, a buttonhole with gimp. I found an old skein of Italian gimp (known as Vergolina in Italian) called “La Milanese” which may have started all that.

Italian gimp by the brand name La Milanaise

So if not in Milan, where? All of the top Parisian tailors make this buttonhole on the lapels of their garments, as do many of the tailors around Rome. I have seen one on the lapel of a dinner jacket made by Brioni, also located near Rome. So what might connect Paris and Rome? And also, why? What purpose could this very delicate buttonhole possible serve?

Domenico Caraceni is often referred to as the “father of Italian tailoring”; we was receiving castoffs from London’s famous Savile Row which he would dissect and study (sound familiar?). He merged these techniques with some of his own which he patented, and in 1933 published a treatise on this new style of tailoring. His brother, Augusto (or Agostino) set up shop in Paris and I originally imagined that this buttonhole might have been developed by Domenico and spread to Paris by Augusto. I failed to consider something, however.

When Mussolini invaded France, Augusto left Paris and eventually set up in Milan, the A. Caraceni branch of the Caraceni family dynasty. I forgot about having dissected a suit made by A. Caraceni so I went back to check the lapel. A normal buttonhole.

One could assume that, having brought the famous buttonhole to Paris, they would still be doing it in their new, Milanese location. But no. So did it come later?

Camps de Luca, another of the top Parisian tailoring firms, was founded in 1969, Mario de Luca having apprenticed around Rome. Did he bring the buttonhole? There are a number of stylistic quirks common to most of the top Parisian tailors- the buttonhole being one, but also the teardrop-shaped interior pocket, some very geometric cutting of the interior facings which, stylistically, suggest the 1960s or 1970s.

But then something new came to me.

When I first started working at Hickey Freeman about 12 years ago, I noticed the buttonhole and someone said “oh yes we used to do that on all our tuxedos, now we only do it on the tail coats”. I figured some Italian had brought it over here during the many waves of immigration, especially after WWII. But then I bought a dinner jacket made by Hickey Freeman in 1925, and then another from the early 1930s, and discovered these.

1925 Dinner Jacket made by Hickey Freeman for Gano-Downs in Detroit
1930’s dinner jacket made by Hickey Freeman for Stackpole, Moore, Tryon in Hartford, CT

Let’s go back to the 1920s and see what was being written at the time.

Paris, June 14, 1924, Fairchild News Service- U.S. STYLES BEING FEATURED BY MEN’S TAILORS IN FRANCE

“In tailoring shops whose revenue depends upon sales to American and British customers who believe the exchange warrants them in buying clothes in Paris, a combination of American styles in British woolens is emphasized.

The American style of figure-shaped garments appears to have the call, and several tailors who count American customers on their books are playing up American styles in preference to British cut.

One English tailor on the [Parisian] boulevards advertises that ‘1,000 American patrons on my books assures the excellence of my fit’, while others…explain to prospective customers that they received their training at Hickey Freeman’s in Rochester, N.Y., and that they can make coats a-la-American, if so desired.”

Was the ready-made clothing being churned out by an American factory really that good?

In January 1926, it was announced in the Daily News Record that Austin Reed, the tailor who had founded the 25 stores in the UK, had sent his son to study garment making at Hickey Freeman in Rochester, N.Y. and that both the Austin Reed chain as well as Selfridge’s would be selling Hickey Freeman product. In Douglas Austin Reed’s own words- “I would like to say that before I came to the States, I positively looked down on ready-to-wear clothes; but during the last month which I spent with Hickey-Freeman Co., I can truthfully say that there is no better anywhere.

At the present time in England there is quite a marked difference between ready-to-wear clothing and custom made. The big difference I can see between Hickey-Freeman clothes and the English custom made, is that Hickey-Freeman clothes are better.”

That’s a pretty bold statement. But back to our buttonholes.

As I considered the buttonholes on these antique garments, it suddenly occurred to me that the silk used as facings on the lapels might have been too delicate for a regular buttonhole, that the spacing between the knots might have exposed some of the raw edge of the silk to wear or fraying. That a buttonhole worked with a finer thread, with a length of gimp to support it and prevent uneven tension in the knots making unsightly pulls in the delicate silk, would be more appropriate for these garments. And then it also occurred to me that this fine, smooth and shiny buttonhole had an appearance not unlike the smooth, shiny satin upon which it rested. So functionality as well as aesthetics.

It’s certainly not conclusive, but when we consider the fact that this buttonhole already existed at Hickey Freeman at a time when notable European tailors and experts in the field were making the long overseas journey to learn or be trained at Hickey Freeman, I would suggest that it is highly likely that it actually originated here and made its way to Europe, rather than the other way around.