GREED, EXCESS AND VANITY
Buttons were a decorative way of displaying wealth thereby widening the social divide between the rich and the poor. This display of vanity was even more noticeable with royalty. Louis XIV spent 60,000 on jewelled buttons. That would have been quite a drain on the country’s coffers.
King Edward VII was a rather stout man. Due to this larger girth, he was unable to close the bottom button of his vests and jackets. Whether his court copied this new style to appease him or whether they feared upsetting him, we might never know. It is said that this was when people started leaving the bottom button of their jackets open, which is still a custom to this day. Today’s jackets are designed and cut to have the bottom button undone.
Pirates would sometimes turn some of their golden bounties into buttons thereby displaying their piratical prowess for all to see.
In the 18th century men often wore more buttons than women to show their wealth and social status. At the high point of this trend Dandies, men who favoured elaborate over the top outfits wore enormous metal buttons. I love the caricature Blinded by Brillant Buttons which depicts one of the Dandies of the 18th century blinding a young lady with his bright buttons.
Buttons have long been used a nifty little devices to smuggle small items. During the war between France and England jewels and messages were smuggled across the English Channel in buttons to bypass the law and tariffs. In 1971, a woman attempted to smuggle 1 kilogram of cocaine by filling 217 quarter-sized buttons with the white powder. She had sewn the buttons on three bedspreads and tried to bring them into Miami airport. She was caught.
Not learning, another woman in 2009 got caught attempting to hide heroin in 574 buttons sewn on 28 dresses at the Perth airport. With that many buttons sewn on them, those dresses would have been fit for Pearly Queens.
THANK YOU, NAPOLEON
Napoleon was the first to have buttons sewn on sleeves of jackets. It is said that he saw one of his officers wiping his nose on the sleeve of his uniform and added the buttons to prevent this unhygienic display from happening again. Today, these sleeve buttons can still be found on suits. The sleeve buttons on cheaper suits do not even act as fasteners but are purely for decoration.
Queen Victoria went into mourning when her husband Prince Albert died in 1861. She wore black clothing with black jet buttons for years after his death. These buttons became very popular during this time. Because jet buttons, made from fossilized coal, were very expensive people began to wear black glass buttons meant to represent the jet ones she wore.
Charles XII King of Sweden was said in legends to be so indestructible that he was only able to be killed by one of his buttons. It is rumoured that he was killed when one of the buttons from his coat fell off, was fashioned into a bullet and shot at him by an assassin. The shooter was reportedly sent by his soon to be on the throne sister. It is controversial whether or not this is true, but it sounds a little dark and suspicious.
There is a Russian belief that if you are passing a graveyard you should touch your buttons. I am not sure why, if anyone knows I would love to hear why.
Heroin Concealed in Dress Buttons Australian Federal Police website
Cocaine Buttons: Just One Smuggling Trick Boca Raton News Sep 3, 1972 pg 12
Strange Russian Beliefs Traditional Customs website
The Simple, Humble, Surprisingly Sexy Button: A Visual History by Jude Stewart on Slate
History of Buttons on Dustystars
Performing Knowledge by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett