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by Elena Tran
October 20, 2020
Fashion designers don’t think about buttons as simple closures and unusual novelty buttons are in high demand to draw attention to the garment or bring a little oomph to a simple design. Online shopping opened a world of rare baubles that you would never find at the local Fabricland. In this article, I will look at how the buttons evolved throughout history and the current outlook of this important fashion item.
Let’s begin with the birth of a button as a closure. Although buttons existed for hundreds of years, our story begins in the Middle Ages when buttons started to be functional. Clothes in the Middle Ages were very simple pull-over-the-head style and there was no need for closures. The shirts and dresses were held in place with pins and belts or cords. In the 14th century, the fashion changed and buttons as fasteners appeared on the sleeves and neck openings. (Singman) The typical buttons looked like fabric-stuffed little balls or wooden or bone molds covered with fabric.
Later in the Middle Ages, the buttons became more elaborate and a variety of materials were used. Nobility spent a lot of money on buttons which became as expensive as the rest of the clothing. Exotic silk and gold threads and precious stones adorned the buttons of the wealthiest. The buttons materials expanded to include glass, cast metals, punched or pressed metals.
As clothing became very important for social climbing, the fabric and decorations were increasingly judged as symbols of good taste and success that opened many doors to the fortunate few. One of the innovations during the Renaissance period was the invention of a scented button. Many people think that the first scented buttons were produced in America in 1800, but actually it was a lot earlier than that. Perfumed buttons were made and widely used in Europe in 1600s. (Smithsonian)
Men’s clothing deserves a special mention. Ornamental buttons were added extensively to men’s clothing starting from the Middle Ages. This is a stark difference with today’s minimalist and understated buttons used in men's tailoring. The decorative metal buttons, scented buttons, fabric-covered buttons spruced with lavish embroidery and precious stones were all used to help the wannabes of the time advance in the royal courts.
During the Victorian and Edwardian periods, cloth-covered, woven and crocheted buttons were popular. There was a huge demand for handmade buttons. The industry was booming, and different types of button patterns were invented during that time. Black and white colored buttons were most popular and buttons were used on gloves and shoes.
(State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
By the end of World War I, there was the irreversible change in the button-making industry. There was a high demand for cheaper buttons and the mass production of plastic buttons was on the rise. Although it put the expensive and time-consuming handmade buttons industry out of business, it allowed other communities to flourish around the successful buttons factories.
During the times that followed, handmade buttons were only commissioned by the famous fashion houses in Paris and therefore became exclusive to the wealthy. (Nehring) Elsa Schiaparelli was notorious for using special-order novelty buttons in unusual shapes such as animals, butterflies, and even trapeze artists. They were important points of detail that played center stage on her garments. Balenciaga used big over-sized buttons to add bold detail and drama and complement other parts of the design. (Smithsonian). And we cannot move on without paying homage to Chanel’s signature gilt buttons.
During the Second World War, the buttons industry was hit once again. There was shortage of materials and the clothing industry had to adapt. For example, the British government imposed new regulations which limited the amount of materials and buttons that could be used in clothing. It is hard for us to understand but women had to use coupons to buy clothes, fabrics and buttons so they had to be careful not to use too many coupons. “Utility” clothes were designed with the maximum allowable three buttons at the front. Mending clothes was encouraged and instructions were easily available.
After the war, there was a surge in fashion culminating with the New Look launched by Christian Dior. Dior was a great businessman who understood how important it was to maintain the ancillary trades, such as embroidery, buttons, fabrics, beads, threads, pleats, flowers, etc. Dior fully supported these fragile suppliers in a way that is not seen today. (Palmer) He purchased his fabrics and buttons from local businesses thus allowing them to prosper. Haute couture was never the same after his untimely death.
In the late 1980s, there was a new trend in the haute couture industry. The houses of Chanel and Dior started buying small artisan workshops to form their business subsidiaries. For example, the Chanel’s Métiers d’Art group has acquired more than two dozen businesses for its Paraffection subsidiary, like the famous workshop Maison Lesage embroidery, Maison Michel hats, Massaro shoes, Goossens jewelry, Maison Lemarié feathers, ACT 3 (Association Création Textile) tweeds which gave them exclusive access to the proprietary designs in their vaults and the pool of skilled master craftsmen in their studios. (Desiree Sadek) Maison Desrues buttons, which used to supply Vionnet, Lanvin, Dior, Balmain and Balenciaga, became the first of Chanel’s acquisitions. It makes all the buttons for their designs. (Mitic)
There are a handful of local artisans making hand-made buttons. The buttons manufacturing in Europe started to disappear back in the 70s and about sixty percent of the world’s buttons is now made abroad in towns such as Qiaotou in China, which is known as “button town”. (Froy)The button manufacturers that survived adapted to the fashion industry. They have capabilities to do molding and casting metals, glass enameling, soldering, lacquering, varnishing, gilding, silver plating, working with lead glass and pearls. To attract a wider customer base, the most successful manufacturers hustle making belts, chains, hooks, zippers, cords, trims and all the things closures. Modern technology, like CAD and 3-D printing is important to cut costs and speed production to market.
Claire Wilcox, Valerie D. Mendes. 20th-Century Fashion in Detail. London: V & A Publishing, 1994.
Desiree Sadek, Guillaume De Laubier. Inside Haute Couture: Behind the Scenes at the Paris Ateriers. New York: Abrams, 2015.
Froy, Francesca. https://www.borntoengineer.com/what-the-remnants-of-britains-button-industry-teach-us-about-the-future-of-manufacturing. September 2018.
Knopf & Knopf International. https://www.knopfundknopf.com/en/buttons-accessories-trends.
Mitic, Ginanne Brownell. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/05/fashion/buttons-desrues-chanel. December 2018.
Nehring, Nancy. 50 Heirloom Buttons to Make. Newtown: The Taunton Press, Inc., 1996.
Palmer, Alexandra. Christian Dior: History & Modernity | 1947 - 1957. Toronto: Hirmer Publishers and Royal Ontario Museum, 2018.
Singman, Jeffrey L. The Middle Ages: Everyday Life in Medieval Europe. New York: SterlingPublishing Co., 2013.
Smithsonian. Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style. New York: DK Publishing, 2012.
State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Russian Splendor: Sumptious Fashions of the Russian Court. New York: Skira, Rizzoli, 2014.