Reader Will writes:
I've got a suit-coat question that I thought you might be able to answer. Can you convert a standard 3-button jacket into a 3/2 merely by rolling the lapel down a little before pressing it? Or does the underlying construction of the jacket dictate how many button holes you show? I've got a 3-button that looks a little stiff on me, and I thought I could relax its presentation by rolling it down to a 3/2. My tailor says no dice.
The answer to your question, Will, is not so direct or easy, as a lot of little factors must be taken into consideration on what appears on the surface to be a relatively simple matter. That's long-hand for "good question".
To start with, a little history is in order. Lapels are a standard feature of a man's jacket. They remain, regardless of the whims of fashion. As with so much in menswear, they are a derivative vestige of military detailing. Flip up the collar or your jacket and hold the lapels closed and its easy to see how they were once the rolled back front pieces of a military tunic style coat. Extra, unused buttonholes derive from this as well.
This illustration shows tunic style military coats buttoned to the neck. Side note: the indispensable navy blazer with gold buttons also derives from uniforms such as this.
This photo of General Ulysses S. Grant shows how the unused top button hole on a 3/2 jacket got it's start. Grant wears his tunic style coat open at the neck, revealing a shirt and tie, and creating what we know as a lapel. Perhaps we should refer to this look in nerdy menswear parlance as "18 x 5 (9 roll 5) undarted double breasted front with natural shoulders".
The style of having a three button coat "rolled" to the center became a noted detail of American menswear in the middle of the twentieth century. Brooks Brothers, as with so many things in American menswear, was right at the center of it. This vintage Brooks Brothers suit has essentially four evenly space button holes, with the second from bottom the focal point. More modern ones have three button holes spaced roughly from just below the belt to just below the chest. Jackets like this one were cut with this button stance in mind. But, can a more straight cut three button be converted?
Construction of the jacket will have a lot to do with this. Often, lapels are cut specifically to sit one way or another, and changing that can throw off the lines and proportions of the entire jacket. It's not as simple as just ironing it differently. Canvassing, chest construction and the construction of the lapel have been set to drape a certain way.
Then there's that pesky third button hole. If you look closely at the first photo and the last photo, you can see clearly that the top button hole has been finished on the inside. This is because it was meant to be seen from that side, rolled back into the lapel. If a jackets button hole is not neatly finished on that side, then the suit wasn't meant to hang that way and no pressing will ever really get it to look right in that stance. You might be able to soften the angle at which the lapel rolls, but you won't get a true 3/2 out of it.
Lastly, if the tailor says no, than I guess the answer is no. He knows better than you, or I, do.