Many people have a tin or jar of spare buttons at home, but I have a whole cabinet’s worth, dating from every conceivable era and in every material, shape and design you could imagine.
What I love most about my buttons is that I’ll never fully know their secrets - the garment they came from; who owned it; where and how they were made and by whom. Even their journey to me is mysterious, bar the final part where I came across them, usually in a charity shop, at a car boot sale or perhaps via Ebay. At the same time, they’re brimming with clues about their wearer’s class, gender, style - and the particular moment in costume history they occupied.
I love that they’re so tiny and easily disregarded – and yet, especially when it comes to examples of high-end glass buttons, some are like miniature works of art (1).
Buttons have been around for at least 5000 years, made of anything and everything that was to hand, from the waste left behind from hunting or foraging to a whole suite of man-made materials. In 1918, the US government surveyed the international button market and listed the following things buttons were made from: vegetable ivory, metal, glass, galalith, silk, linen, cotton-covered crochet, lead, snap fasteners, enamel, rubber, buckhorn, wood, horn, bone, leather, paper, pressed cardboard, mother-of-pearl, celluloid, porcelain, composition, tin, zinc, xylonite, stone, cloth-covered wooden forms, and papier-mâché. That list has only grown since.
Buttons from my collection (2) in Marcasite, Murano glass, and various types of shell.
The first ‘special’ button I bought was a beautiful, blue Victorian glass button, that took my eye at an antiques fair on the Isle of Wight. It reminded me of being at my godmother’s house as a child and the hours I’d spend organising the contents of her button box by size, colour or shape.
I made my own button jewellery for quite a few years, selling hundreds of pieces, but quickly started to realise I was finding it hard to part with the best ones (3). I began putting them to one side and, almost without knowing it, became a collector - a curator even - of my own button-museum-at-home.
It wasn’t just the aesthetics that thrilled me. Buttons denote social status too. These plain metal buttons (4) were once used to fasten functional, workers’ clothes. In houses where money was in short supply, women would make buttons too, such as this example on the right, made from wool arranged round some kind of solid frame.
On the opposite end of the social scale, these buttons (5) came from Victorian gentlemen’s waistcoats. Racing, gaming imagery or family crests were favourite motifs here, though the button of someone’s beloved – who was she? who loved her? – has long been a favourite.
Another gendered button is the bachelor button (6). I came across examples of these quite early on but wasn’t quite sure what they were until a dealer explained their name and function. Bachelor buttons were used to replace men’s top shirt buttons, as it was believed men couldn’t do these up on their own without the help of a nimble-fingered woman! They were soon a way to show you were a dandy too and, especially for evening shirts, the nicest bachelor buttons feel halfway between a functional item and a piece of a jewellery.
Some of my favourite buttons are in early plastics, including Celluloid, Lucite and Bakelite (7).
A design peak came with Art Deco, where buttons were shaped, cut into, faceted and experimented with as never before (8).
Unusual shapes became a feature (9) from the 1930s onwards, hitting a peak in the 1950s.
The 1950s also saw the introduction of mass-produced novelty buttons, such as these cowboy hats (10), used for kids’ outfits and fancy dress.
This supersized button is a personal favourite and dates from the 1970s, another era where buttons were regarded as an opportunity for design fun. I imagine this on a garment from BIBA or perhaps a more mass-market retailer of the time like Chelsea Girl.
Finally - my very favourite button (12). I have a whole fantasy about this one! It has a real Arts & Crafts / Charles Rennie Mackintosh / Liberty’s of London feel. I like to think it was worn by one of the Bloomsbury set. Maybe even Virginia Woolf herself!
That’s the real charm of this collection for me. I can imagine what I like about my buttons, whilst knowing they’ll never give up their full story.