Class conscious - Andrew Martin

Buttons and buttonholes are funny old things that come with an etiquette

I have spent a good chunk of the past three years editing a dictionary of humorous quotations. Obviously, the section on "class and snobbery" is pretty huge. I include a joke told by Maureen Lipman: "Q: Why did the chicken cross the road? A: To see the duchess lay a foundation stone." And I like this one by Jimmy Carr: "I'm middle class but I'm hard - al dente." The quotations cover the span of literature, and what's interesting is to see how certain ostensibly minor subjects have remained the subject of jokes over a long time. One of these is buttonholes. An anonymous 18th-century suicide note read simply, "All this buttoning and unbuttoning." In Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne said of buttonholes, "There is something lively in the very idea of 'em", and the American stand-up comedian Steven Wright mournfully intoned, ". . . I lost a buttonhole."

Buttons and buttonholes are in themselves class-bound articles, and the more you have to do with them, the more of an old-fashioned toff you probably are. In 1960, the Duke of Windsor (formerly Edward VIII), who was clothes-mad, wrote: "At first the lounge jacket buttoned high at the neck, but gradually the number of buttons diminished from four, to three, or two, and even - though not in the best circles - to one."

If the one-button world represented the end of civilised society to Edward VIII, it's a good thing he didn't live to see chav gear, which involves none at all. Buttons generally are on the way out. They're too slow. The preferred fastener is Velcro, which is fast and, even better, makes a loud and horrible noise. My elder son has one, freak pair of trousers with a button fly. He walks out of public lavatories still scowling and cursing down at it while fastening it up, which I tell him is not good form. But he is unused to buttons. Like most children of today, he slithers into loose, often elasticated trousers, buttonless shirts, and sweat tops.

The word suit is from the French suivre (to follow), and the more buttons you have, the more rules apply. Waistcoats, which had a whole stack of them, are now seldom worn, and the people who do wear them probably don't realise they look better if the bottom one is left undone - one of many important breakthroughs made in this area by Edward VII, who was even keener on clothes than Edward VIII. My father told me that, on a three-button suit jacket (which he really ought to have called a "coat"), you do up only the middle one. He would also frown on any lapel (which he really ought to have called a "rever") that did not feature a buttonhole.

A smart man will wear a flower in that buttonhole, and a really smart man will attach a little silver cup full of water to the rever, so that the flower will live longer. I do not know the name of those cups, and in fact there would be something very wrong if I did, considering that I went to a secondary modern school. But I once read a letter written to an agony column in the Telegraph by a man who urgently wanted to buy such a thing. He was supplied with the name of a shop, and also told that he could use one of those little plastic fishes containing soy sauce, the ones in the sushi selection trays you can buy at Tesco's - a fact whose social-historical resonances seemed to me practically infinite.

Much of today's modern, buttonless costume has a sporting theme, which annoys me. However, what Hardy Amies would have called "the gentleman's suit", with all its sophisticated button rules, evolved from riding, or sporting, gear. Which reminds me that I saw a teenager walking through York wearing a sweatshirt bearing that typeface associated with American campus sports, but his read "Non-Athletic". He was, too.

Funny You Should Say That: amusing remarks from Cicero to the Simpsons is published by Penguin on 1 September