Superfluous? Maybe. But nothing shows off your gentleman bona fides quite like old-boy armbands.
Although you’ve probably never seen anyone actually wearing them, you may have come across them before in movies or old pictures of bartenders, bankers or accountants.
Armbands came into fashion in the mid-1800s as more men started to wear button-up shirts but few could afford to have them properly fitted. A button-up shirt “off the peg” in the 19th century would be sized only around the collar, with the expectation that the rest of the garment would be covered in a jacket or waistcoat - so fit around the sleeves and torso was of little importance. Armbands were relied on to “hold up” sleeves that were too long, essentially giving the illusion that the sleeves were shorter (and thus more fitted) than they actually were.
Bankers and bartenders were particularly reliant on armbands to keep the cuffs of their shirts our of the ink wells and liquor spills. On hot, or especially busy days, when men took off their jackets and rolled up their sleeves, armbands played the additional role keeping otherwise unmanageable folds of sleeve neatly held in place. It is this latter role that I think armbands are still suited for.
Though today everyone can afford dress shirts that are at least roughly sized to their arm length, not all dress shirts are designed to be rolled up. Shirts with French cuffs are an obvious example of this problem: they look brilliant when held firmly in place by a set of cufflinks, but quickly become unruly if you try to remove the cufflinks and roll them up to engross yourself in a project (or lunch).
But even the standard barrel-cuffed shirts, if the sleeve placket lacks a button, can be difficult to roll up. In the photo above I am wearing a Brooks Brothers shirt (pictured in detail below) that lacks a button on the sleeve placket. While for everyday wear this is perfectly acceptable, when trying to roll-up one’s sleeves this can be problematic.
A nicely rolled sleeve is all about tension, and a button on the sleeve placket (see photo below) allows you to manipulate that tension. A tightly rolled-up sleeve not only looks better, but it will stay in place. If you’re unable to get any tension between your arm and your shirt when you’re rolling up your sleeve, it will inevitably come unrolled, or worse you’ll have to keep folding until you’re up over your elbow, and then you’ll just look awkward.
The solution? Armbands. Don’t be turned off by their decidedly non-bourgeois background, since at least Prohibition armbands have been earning their #menswear stripes by not only being a practical accessory, but also an accessory with a story.
Likely they’ll never be part of your daily ensemble, but if you’re digging in for a long evening of doc-review, they may come in handy.