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The History of the Button

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A selection of buttons.

This entry will explore the history of the button. Not the chocolate button, or the button on your computer screen, or indeed the one you are said to be contemplating when being idle. This entry is about the button holding your trousers up or your shirt closed. Humanity invented the button well before its time; but, luckily for us, it hung around until someone invented the buttonhole.

Is it a Button?

Over 3,000 years ago, during the Bronze Age, the first buttons made their debut. While recognisably buttons, Bronze Age man didn't fasten anything with them, but simply wore them for decoration. The dandies of the day wore buttons fashioned from bone, horn, wood, metal or even seashells; but, in the absence of a buttonhole, were they anything more than just sew-on brooches?

At the time, man used belts, pins or brooches to fasten his clothes; even in extreme weather there was no practical use for a button. So the button just existed, waiting for the next big clothing innovation.

It is a Button

The Greeks, although they had no word for button, did, like the Romans, use them for decoration. However, at some point, someone thought the button might make a nifty fastener. To this end, they ran the button through a little loop of thread and thereby created a use for the button, alongside the pin or the brooch, to keep garments together.

As clothing became more fitted, the button and loop became more attractive since it was less likely to cause injury than a pin. By around 1200, the button and buttonhole arrived in Europe, delivered, like many other things, by the returning Crusaders. Not that they invented it themselves — no, they had 'freed' the idea from the Turks and Mongols encountered on their travels. At any rate, the button and buttonhole were to become a driving force in clothing design.

So Button it

The first buttonholes were slits made in fabric just big enough to pass the button through, and this was enough to hold clothes fast and inspire a fashion revolution.

The word button appeared at around this time and stems from either the French bouton for bud or bouter to push. Whatever the basis for the word, the French were quick to spot the potential of the button and by 1250 had established the Button Makers Guild. The Guild produced beautiful buttons with great artistry, much to the delight of the aristocracy. The peasants, however, weren't allowed to join this button fest, even if they could afford it. The aristocracy passed laws to limit buttons permitted for common usage to thread- or cloth-covered buttons. As a result, the button became a status symbol, and it wasn't discrete; buttons were being used like there was no tomorrow - not just for fastening clothes but, once more, as adornment.

By the middle of the 1300s buttons were big business and people loved them. Tailors produced garments with row upon row of buttons with matching buttonholes. France, by this time, was the button capital of Europe and the Guild made considerable profit producing buttons for coats, dresses and anything that looked as if it needed a button. Europe was so button crazy that even the Church got in on the act and denounced them as 'the devil's snare', seemingly referring to the ladies in their button-fronted dresses.

This attraction for buttons resulted in some outfits adorned with thousands of buttons, all of them with accompanying buttonholes. Dressing and undressing became a chore, but created a niche for the employment of professional dressers. Button mania ran on unabated, and in 1520 reports tell of a meeting where King Francis I of France, his clothing bedecked with some 13,600 buttons, met King Henry VIII of England, similarly weighed down with buttons.

The button thing couldn't last forever though, and with the Puritans condemning it as sinful, in the 16th Century its popularity began to wane to more sensible levels1. That's not to say they weren't still very much in vogue; it's just that the number of buttons required to be at the height of fashion diminished. In response to this, the button-makers took to making more and more elaborate buttons. These artisans made their fancy buttons from precious materials like gold, ivory and even diamond.

Diamonds would seem more than a little excessive for buttons, but in 1620 the First Duke of Buckingham reputedly had a suit and cloak covered in diamond buttons, although most were purely decorative. Not everyone, however, could afford such a lavish display, so button-makers also used silver, ceramics and silk. Even artists of the day filled their time hand-painting portraits or scenery on buttons.

Louis XIV adored his buttons and returned to the excesses of previous ages, but he also encouraged others by having his army wear silver-coloured bone buttons on their tunics.

If you are in any doubt as to the importance of buttons in the 17th Century you could do worse than check out la Guerre des Boutons — not the film, but the actual war. French tailors started the war and won the first battle with the use of thread buttons. These were basically little balls of thread which worked admirably as buttons. The button-makers were furious, and in response they lobbied the government to help them. A law was passed and the war was won with the tailors being fined for the production of the thread buttons. Not satisfied with this, however, the button-makers went on to insist on the rigorous enforcement of the new law. They wanted homes and wardrobes searched and even suggested the arrest and fining of people for wearing clothing with thread buttons. It is unclear how far they got with their demands, beyond the authorities fining the tailors for their ingenuity.

Around this time the United Kingdom, America and Germany were muscling in on the French Button-makers' Guild's lucrative market.

Towards the end of the 1700s big metallic buttons were in vogue and this resulted in uniforms and outfits needing fewer. It also saw the introduction, apparently by Napoleon, of sleeve buttons on tunics2. This didn't, however, halt the development of the double-breasted jacket. These jackets were much like the chef's jacket of today. When the outside of the jacket was soiled the wearer just had to unbutton it and place the soiled surface on the inside then button the clean side outermost. Now that is practical.

Modern Buttons

From the 19th Century buttons were mass-produced, but this didn't detract from the wide variety available; Dorset buttons, made from thread, competed side-by-side with bone and metal buttons. The fashion-conscious still prized buttons and brass or ceramic buttons were sold boxed and in sets to be affixed to uniforms or other clothing. Every home kept a button box which held reclaimed buttons from discarded garments, along with odd buttons suitable for completing repairs.

No entry about the button would be complete without an honorable mention for the white pearl button. A shipment from Japan flooded the button market with this type of button in the 1860s, and this directly resulted in the rise of the Pearly Kings and Queens of London. Visitors to the city could expect to see these local celebrities sporting costumes bearing over 30,000 buttons, although today they are generally only seen at charitable events.

The most popular button of the 19th Century, however, was the black glass button, which was mainly pearl-shaped. This was made for the masses in response to Queen Victoria's usage of black jet buttons - mourning buttons - following the death of Prince Albert.

By the turn of the 20th Century, picture and novelty buttons were very much the fashion. They no longer needed to be hand-painted when they could have scenes printed onto them, so hunting or other delights were popular for waistcoats. Molding produced buttons in all shapes and sizes, from the little fox's head to the Wellington boot or indeed a strawberry, and it was perhaps this that began the trend for collecting buttons for their own sake.

With the introduction of plastics, buttons weren't quite so precious. However, since the arrival of the sewing machine and patterns for the thrifty dressmaker, they provided the finishing touches while dressing on a budget.

Many homes still have button boxes, but with today's busy lifestyle few people take the time to sew buttons on anything - even though most garments come with a spare.

Buttons Forever?

Today buttons, like clothing, come in all shapes and sizes. There are the basic circular, square or triangular buttons. The buttons with two, three or four holes for application, the toggle button, leather shaft type or stud buttons. There are many button collectors clubs, and indeed the winner of the 2005 Antiques Roadshow Collector of the Year was Anne Blight, a champion button collector - confirming a market for buttons continues to exist.

The future of the button seems secure despite the popularity of velcro, poppers3 and zips. This could be due to the fact that whatever you're fastening, it just looks better with the flourish of a button. Or it could just be that the button and buttonhole are perfect for their job. No matter what, the button has continued to thrive alongside the various alternatives, and regardless of what science fiction would have us wearing, the button seems certain to survive. Just in case it doesn't, however, there is always an online button museum.

1Even today in the USA the Amish community don't wear buttons as they consider them a sign of pride.2This apparently reduced the likelihood of those in uniform wiping their noses on their sleeves due to the risk of self-mutilation. A smaller version of these buttons can still be seen today on the jackets of men's suits.3Poppers are also known as press studs.

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