Along with brooches, buckles, and straight pins, buttons were used in ancient Rome as decorative closures for flowing garments. However, none of these options worked perfectly. Pins poked unsightly holes into precious fabrics. Supporting yards of cloth at a single point required buttons of architectural heft, made of bone, horn, bronze or wood. Some designs took the functional pressure off buttons by knotting the fabric securely into position, then topping off the look with a purely ornamental button.
|Spanish metal button dating from about 1650 to 1675.|
Courtesy Button Country.
The first button-makers guild formed in France in 1250. Still regarded as less-than-functional jewelry, buttons were so prized that sumptuary laws restricted their use. Books, Banks, Buttons and Other Inventions from the Middle Ages by Chiara Frugoni relates how, in a period tale, a magistrate quizzed a woman overly bedecked in buttons.
|18th century buttons, courtesy Button Country|
Ornate buttoning among the wealthy required some help. Around this era is when buttons migrated to different sides of a shirt for men and women. Men usually donned their own shirts, so their buttons faced right for their convenience. Women with ladies’ maids wore their buttons on the left, to make it easier for the maids to maneuver while facing them.
George Washington’s 1789 inauguration gave the world its first political button. Made of copper, brass or Sheffield plate, these buttons could close a pair of breeches or a jacket while simultaneously announcing the wearer’s politics. Political buttons took on a more recognizably modern (and less functional) shape during Lincoln’s 1864 re-election campaign. (View 150 years of political buttons here.)
|A Campaign button for Abraham Lincoln|
|Black glass buttons courtesy Button Country|
This grand democratization didn’t stem the tide of expensive ornamental buttons. Victorian “Tussie-Mussie” buttons pictured tiny bouquets whose flowers held symbolic messages. Queen Victoria donned mourning buttons of carved black jet upon her husband Albert’s death, kicking off a fashion among bereaved button-wearers throughout the Empire.
|Early 20th century button hook|
Tracing the body’s curves with increasing exactness, buttons have long equaled body consciousness. In the 20th century, button’s sexier side came more overtly to the fore. Buttons, in other words, designate sites of vitality, embarrassment, and thrill. When told that a certain lady wouldn’t hurt a fly, Dorothy Parker retorted, “Not if it was buttoned up.” Gertrude Stein’s slim volume Tender Buttons (1914) is winkingly named after the clitoris. Electrical devices, newly introduced, often used flat-faced “buttons” to complete a circuit, giving rise to double entrendre phrases like “press all my buttons."
|Fabric-printed garter button used by flappers|
Charlene Raddon is a multi-published author of historical romance novels set in the American West. She is also a graphics designer.