HOW CAN THE HISTORY OF BUTTONS BE SO DARN INTERESTING?
Pearly Kings and Queens are people from the east end of London who dress in black garments decorated with patterns made with 100s of small mother of pearl buttons.
Where did this tradition come from? The legend is that a Japanese cargo ship carrying buttons ran aground on the Thames River, and the buttons washed to shore where the locals started sewing them onto their clothes.
In the 19th century, Henry Croft took it one step further by decorating his suit much like the Pearlies’ today, with hundreds of buttons making a patterned suit. He did this to draw attention to himself and his fundraising efforts for charity. Pearly Kings and Queens are still a charitable working class organization operating in London today.
THAT IS A LOT OF GOLD BUTTONS
What does half a million gold buttons, 31 miles of thread, 250 needles, an equal amount of Band-aids, and 3,000 cups of tea make? A 3-metre wide velvet banner that hung from the back of the barge the Queen was on for the Queen’s Jubilee Pageant down the Thames River. Half a million gold buttons decorated the banner in the design of a crown surrounded by a lion and a unicorn. This banner inspired by the ‘Pearlies’ was so heavy it had to be lifted with a forklift.
PEARLY INSPIRED CLOTHING
They also inspired British singer Kylie Minogue performance outfit at the Queen’s Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace. Her black jacket, bodice, shorts and hat were all decorated with different sizes of white buttons. The outfit wasn’t my cup of tea, but You can tell what she was trying to reference.
NOT JUST IN ENGLAND
Global fashion brand Edun’s Pre-AW15 collection included a wool pinstripe suit that reminds me of the Pearlies suits but is, in fact, referencing a type of North African embellishment.
Button blankets were made by the Northwest Coast First Nations people including the Haida, Nisga’a, Tsimshian and Tlingit peoples. These blankets made from the red and black Hudson Bay Company blankets had designs that depicted their family emblem. These designs were created by applique and attaching hundreds of tiny mother of pearl buttons. They are still used today for feasts or traditional performances.
Habitat buttons could be opened and held paintings of loved ones, hair, mementos, and even later lip balm in them.
In 1890’s metal flower buttons were known as perfume buttons as the metal flower was set in a base that was covered in fabric that could be doused in your favourite scent.
Charm Strings or Memory Strings were made by young girls in the 18th century during the Victorian period. They tried to collect 1000 buttons on a string. It was said that before they got to 1000 they would meet their true love. Some even said that they would get a marriage proposal before then. The downside is there must have been a bunch of nervous young ladies who had collected 999 and had no prospects.
I love the cute covered buttons flappers used in the 20’s to hold up their garters. These often had little faces on them and were adorned with ribbons and even feathers. Ladies stockings would be rolled above the knee and kept in place with garters. When dancing, they would lower their stockings so that a sliver of skin and the garter buttons would show. This risque behaviour reflects a time of rule breaking in America between the two World Wars when prohibition and speakeasies existed.
Buttons were considered so precious that they were often removed from a garment when it was washed and then sewn back on after. I cannot imagine doing this for any clothing I own. Hip hip hooray for dry cleaning!
BUTTONS SAVE THE DAY
During WWII in Britain, there were enforced blackouts at night. This was to ensure lights could not be seen by the German planes therefore making it harder for them to hit populated areas. This blackout proved dangerous for pedestrians as without street lights or headlights on cars there were more accidents. Buttons were made that glowed slightly making the trip to the local pub and home again a little bit safer.
Garter Buttons By Judy Stopke on the Bead & Button website
Half a Million Gold Buttons for the Queen BBC News website
Oh sew special! Queen’s Jubilee banner made with 31 miles of thread and half a million gold buttons by Rebecca English for The Daily Mail
Diamond jubilee boat to be decorated with buttons by Caroline Davies for The Guardian
Button Blankets Canadian Museum of History
Pearly Kings and Queens Wikipedia
Wartime fashion shows there was no end to the inventiveness of the Great British public under threat by Emily Retter for the Mirror