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Don't Button That Button!

Lessons from Geno Smith's sartorial slipup at the NFL draft

Al Bello/Getty Images

On the biggest day of his life, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith was eager to prove his critics wrong.

It was the first day of the NFL draft and Smith was the biggest name in attendance—Heisman runner-up Manti Te’o decided to skip the draft entirely, likely as part of his effort to lay low after the embarrassing revelation that his late girlfriend never actually existed. Smith had a dazzling career at West Virginia, which pushed him to the top of the 2013 QB draft class, but there were whispers about his ability to transition to the pros. He did himself no favors at February’s NFL combine in Indianapolis, but was able to re-establish himself as a top pick with a solid pro day in March. Still, one well-regarded scout said that Smith lacked “the football savvy, work habits and focus to cement a starting job and could drain energy from a QB room,” and ESPN "draftologist" Mel Kiper Jr. had the young QB falling out of the first round entirely.

Smith took to Twitter to rebut his critics, thanking the “so called ‘experts’ who say I can't be an NFL QB” for helping to light a fire underneath him. He promised that Thursday—the day of the first round of the draft—would “be a special day,” but that “the work has only begun.”

Against that backdrop, Smith stood on stage with all the other top prospects, preparing to find out where they would begin their NFL careers. Decked out in a black suit with red accent stitching, Smith looked virtually identical to all the other meticulously dressed young men standing next to him, except he had made one small mistake. It wasn’t the slightly off-kilter tie, or the large gold eagle necklace, but rather his suit. Smith, in his eagerness to impress, had committed a cardinal sin, the one thing that differentiates a novice from a pro: He had buttoned the bottom button of his jacket.

From a young age, every man is taught that the bottom button of a suit coat should never be buttoned under any circumstances. Instead, the button—despite its matching button hole—should just hang there, limply, for the uninitiated to mistakenly fasten on their first foray into men’s formal attire.

The button once served a purpose, helping to keep a suit coat centered on a man’s body. Legend has it that the bottom button fell into disuse when Edward VII of England grew too fat and could no longer completely close his coat. Rather than highlight that the king had grown too rotund to correctly wear his suit, all those who visited him would, out of courtesy, also unfasten the button.

Unfortunately, the story of the portly king is too good to be true. When I recounted the tale to Mark-Evan Blackman, the chair of the menswear program at the Fashion Institute of Technology, he laughed a bit before declaring it a myth. Like a fair amount of men’s fashion, the trend can be traced back to the military.  Just before the turn of the last century, British soldiers began to find that the bottom button on their uniforms were hindering their ability to sit a horse and fire a gun while in full dress. In the military it was seen as the norm to leave the bottom of the jacket unbuttoned and, upon returning from war, men adopted the same style on their civilian attire. It caught on, and that was that.

But more than a century later, designers still affix the extra button to most suit coats. Why? “Purely aesthetics,” Blackman said.

On most suit coats, center-front buttons sit at or just above the waist. When buttoned, they keep the coat closed and perfectly balanced on the body. Buttons that go below the waist, like the one Smith had buttoned, “serve no function.” So why not just leave the button off entirely, in order to avoid this sort of error? Designers have tried one-button suits, but they just “don’t sell,” according to Blackman. Jackets themselves are unnecessary these days, but “we are creatures of habit.”

Unfortunately, the suit was the least of Smith’s worries on Thursday night. The criticisms of his play had a major effect on his draft stock, and he became just the most recent top prospect to suffer the infamous “green room slide.” Smith returned to Radio City Music Hall on Friday for the second round of the draft, and was scooped up by the New York Jets as the 39th overall pick. As he took to the stage for the traditional photo, his shirt and tie were accompanied not by a jacket but a V-neck sweater, which is nearly impossible to screw up.