BUTTONS CAN TALK
This post is not intended to be a complete historical timeline of buttons and their use throughout history but rather snippets of what I thought were interesting historical button facts.
Both when and how buttons were used, what materials they were made of and what was depicted on them can tell us different things about the wearer and their time. It can give us clues about their class, gender, what styles of clothing they wore and what they liked.
INITIALLY PRETTY BUT NOT USEFUL
In their humble beginnings buttons were used as adornments. They were used to decorate garments instead of as a fastener. As clothing styles evolved so did the button. We went from loose fitting toga-like outfits, that draped over the body to tighter styles that required buttons for the wearer to get in and out of the garment. In the 13th Century, sleeves became tight from the shoulder to the wrist.These tiny fasteners helped fabric follow more closely the lines of the body.
The first reinforced button holes were made in the mid 13th Century. Before this, buttons were often pulled through loops to fasten garments.
INDICATOR OF WEALTH
Like a Louboutin red-soled high heel or an Apple iWatch, buttons would silently shout, “I have money.” Buttons could in the past reveal a lot about the wearer’s wealth and place in society. The number of buttons, where they were located and what they were made of could tell you if a person was male or female, rich or poor, and which side they were fighting for in a war.
To show off their superior social standing and wealth the nobility and upper classes would often wear garments with rows of buttons made of precious materials. Men’s jackets were so tight that they needed a valet to help them put them on the body. Ladies often had rows of buttons down the backs of their gowns that required assistance to close. This multitude of buttons and close fitting garments they were on implied that they needed and could afford servants to dress them.
The nobility were the trendsetters when it came to fashion. The 1st Duke of Buckingham, in 1620, wore buttons on a suit and cloak with inset diamonds. King Francis the 1st was once said to have had over 13,00 buttons sewn on to one outfit for a visit with the Kind of England. During medieval times, the buttons of the upper classes were so precious it is said that one could pluck one off your garment to settle a debt.
Buttons were used by the lower social classes more as a fastener and less for decoration. For economic reasons, they wore clothing with much fewer buttons. They were found on the front of their garments as they could not afford to have servants to help dress them. They tried to copy the look of the buttons of the upper classes, but they had lower quality materials available and used a lower standard of craftsmanship.
Think it was an accident that buttons further reinforced class distinctions? The fact that there were laws passed that forbid any person of the lower classes to own any buttons other than thread or cloth covered ones seem to prove otherwise.
WHY DO MEN’S BUTTONS CLOSE THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION TO WOMEN’S?
Men and women throughout history had different roles and responsibilities. Buttons on men’s garments closed right to left where ladies garments closed left to right. Men lived in a wider sphere of influence and often worked outside the home and in periods of history were away at war. Most men did not have a valet or servant to help them dress in these situations. As it was easier for most right-handed people to fasten buttons from right to left on themselves, this became the prevalent way buttons were on men’s garments. This gender distinction can still be found on most garments today.
It is surmised that men’s coats unbuttoned on the right so that they could button their coats with the hand not holding their sword. This made it easier to undo the buttons on their sleeves and jacket front and gave them a greater range of movement.
Women of the upper classes during this time in history needed a servant to help them dress. As it is easier for a person helping to dress someone to button buttons from the left to the right that is how they were put on ladies garments.
IN TIMES OF WAR
Even in times of war the button can reveal much. They were considered so important that, like many other supplies during the war, the manufacturing of buttons was pushed away from civilian uses and directed toward the making of military buttons. In World War II buttons along with fabrics, elastic, and nylons were rationed. Austerity regulations put into place by the British Board of Trade between 1942 and 1943 even required suits to be single, not double breasted to save fabric and buttons.
Military buttons could reveal which country and what rank a soldier or officer was. In the American Civil War buttons on the Union and Confederate uniforms signified what rank a soldier held. Officers also had double breasted uniforms where infantry officers wore single-breasted coats. These buttons were often made of or coated with metal. Military buttons are some of the most sought after by collectors, and continually fetch the highest prices for buttons on eBay.
TECHNOLOGY KILLED THE BUTTON’S GOLDEN AGE
Buttons mirror the technologies used at the time in history. They began as man-made items, became artistic creations that displayed wealth and craftsmanship with button guilds, to mass produced items available to the masses after the industrial revolution. Unfortunately with these new advances the quality of the materials and craftsmanship declined along with the button’s perceived worth.
MIRRORS OF CULTURE AND TASTE
Later the modest button became a way of expressing a story and the interests of the wearer. Buttons could have engravings of fairy tales, favourite operas, myths, depict famous characters or people, have miniature artistic paintings or show floral and animals motifs.
Buttons are more than something used to fasten your coat. They tell us history, fashion and even at times make a statement.
For a more complete history of the button check out some links to the post’s references below.
The Simple, Humble, Surprisingly Sexy Button: A Visual History by Jude Stewart on Slate
History of Buttons on Dustystars
An Encyclopedia of the History of Technology edited by Ian McNeil excerpt from Google Books
Button on Wikipedia
Button History on Pegs Button Blog
How Clothes Rationing Affected Fashion In The Second World War
By Laura Clouting and Amanda Mason found on Imperial War Museums website
History of Buttons Fascinating Topic Ludington Daily News Mar 19, 1973, pg 10
Buttons Reflect History of Civilization Says Collector Lodi News -Sentinel Nov 28, 1973, pg 3
National Button Society website
For a collector hooked on history, every button tells a story by Liz Dahl from the Oregonian
A Pictorial History of Costume From Ancient Times to the Nineteenth Century …
By Wolfgang Bruhn, Max Tilke
A History of Costume (Dover Fashion and Costumes) by Carl Kohler