Shirt-Buttoning Styles of the Weird and “Special”

Why Forrest Gump, Adrian Monk, and Steve Urkel button the top button.

Tony Shalhoub as Adrian Monk on Monk

While out on an errand not long ago, a woman stopped me at a crosswalk and asked what day it was. An odd question, but even odder was the way she asked: She crouched slightly as she spoke, even though we were the same height, and her words came out slow and overpronounced, as though she were taking a sobriety test. I answered—I’m a helpful sort—and turned away. But before I could leave, she reached out and said, “Good job!” in a peculiar sing-song voice. She seemed perfectly normal, well-dressed and with a male companion in tow. It suddenly struck me that she thought I was developmentally disabled. But why? When I got home, I stared at the mirror for a bit and found my answer: It was that interval between seasons when it’s breezy but still too warm for a coat, so I’d donned a cardigan and buttoned my shirt all the way to the top. This was unwise. A fully buttoned shirt is the universal costume symbol for special.

The buttoned-up look is often shorthand for retarded. (I mean this in the clinical sense.) Think Forrest Gump, Billy Bob Thornton’s Karl Childers in Sling Blade, or Sean Penn in I Am Sam. Slow but sincere, they wish to be perceived as serious, fully integrated citizens—and that top button is the key to what the Project Runway set might call their “image management.” It says: You may not realize it, but I’m clean and respectable. Penn’s Sam Dawson sports an open collar (sometimes rocking a shirt-on-shirt look) for most of the movie, but he buttons up for his job at Starbucks. Rain Man twisted this trope. There, the buttoned-up shirt identifies Tom Cruise’s Charlie Babbitt as the 1988 version of a slick young hipster—smart enough to wear a collared shirt and shiny shoes but too laid-back for a tie. His autistic brother, Raymond, prefers chain-store casual until the movie’s climactic bonding scene in a Las Vegas casino where they’re fitted for matching off-white suits, and Raymond buttons up to show sartorial solidarity with his newfound sibling”> 

Top button closed can also signal nerd. The ur-example is Steve Urkel of Family Matters. Urkel has no mental impairment—he’s creative and musically gifted—but he isn’t what you’d call normal. The poor lad is saddled with the accoutrements of the social outcast: high-pitched, nasal voice; cackle-snort laugh; high-riding pants; suspenders; a fondness for cardigans; and, yes, a habit of fastening all the buttons on his oversize plaid shirts. Maybe he’s too mature to worry about looking cool, but he comes off like a big kid who doesn’t know how to dress himself. When he gets excited, he tugs at his collar, but he never relaxes enough to undo that top button.

Sometimes, over-buttoning is a sign that characters are a little eccentric, or singular, like Glee’s Artie Abrams—a sweetheart dork who rolls to his own beat in a wheelchair. No surprise, he sports suspenders, sweater vests, and neck-choking shirts. This last item, according to Glee costume designer Lou Eyrich, is essential to conveying his character. In fact, in their first Glee meeting, show creator Ryan Murphy told Eyrich that Artie “will always be in a white shirt buttoned up all the way.” As the show took off, Eyrich relaxed the color rule for the sake of variety, but the top button stayed fastened.

Cory Monteith, who plays Glee’s singing quarterback, Finn, offers insight into the possible origins of this peculiar shirt style. In a “Behind the Glee” featurette, he says that when the other glee club members put on buttoned-up polo shirts and suspenders for the wheelchair number “Proud Mary,” it’s an “hommage to how Artie likes to dress himself—or how his mother likes to dress him.” Eyrich says the mom thing was Monteith’s “own perception” rather than her or Murphy’s concept, but it is astute. One reason developmentally and physically disabled people dress differently from their peers is that their mothers play a big role in their wardrobe choices. Parents are more resistant to changing styles, and they’re more likely to stick to stores like JCPenney rather than venturing into Hot Topic *—so a kid like Artie would likely look out of sync with fashion.

Those readers tempted to chalk up the top-button-“special” correlation to mere coincidence should tune into the series finale of Monk this Friday night, in which tight-collared obsessive-compulsive detective Adrian Monk will solve his last case. The penultimate episode began with a flashback that showed Monk 12 years ago, back in the carefree days before his wife was killed and his OCD tendencies kicked into overdrive. The old Monk didn’t seem all that different from the twitchy guy regular viewers know so well, except for one detail: He was wearing a necktie. Finally, definitive proof! Before trauma: necktie. Post trauma: no necktie, conspicuously fastened top button. A couple of years ago, costume designer Ileane Meltzer explained Monk’s signature look: “Ties carry a million germs. People don’t clean their ties. Food goes on their ties as they’re hanging around their necks. People cough, sneeze; everything goes on the tie. They’re cleaned maybe once a year—if that. So that was a big no-no for a germophobe.” In other words, maybe all those freaks and geeks are on to something.

Correction, Dec. 4, 2009: Due to a typo, this article originally misspelled the name of the store Hot Topic. (Return to the corrected sentence.)