Facts That Figure: Buttons

Facts That Figure: Buttons

By: C.G. Hoffman

Raise your hand if your mother made you chew on a piece of thread if she fixed a button or something else while you were wearing it so as “not to sew up your mazel!” Here are some fascinating facts about buttons:

The earliest buttons may not even have been used to fasten clothes. The oldest buttons found by archaeologists were found in India, and were probably simply sewn onto garments of high-status people for decorations.

The Romans used skillfully cast and ornamented brooches much like a safety pin to fasten their clothes together. They were made of copper and precious metals, and wealthier Romans often wore elaborate brooches inlaid with precious gemstones.

The Middle Ages produced an amazing innovation: buttonholes! This revolutionary breakthrough allowed for a button to be pulled through and stay firmly in its place. Fashion would never be the same again!

Throughout the Middle Ages, buttons were still firmly in the hands of the wealthy, and the poor sufficed with tying rope or ribbons to fasten their garments. Sumptuary laws, aka clothing takkanos, are not a new thing at all, nor are they exclusively Jewish. In the Middle Ages buttons made of gold or other precious metals were used by the wealthy to show off, and women in Florence, Italy were banned from wearing buttons without corresponding buttonholes!

Showing off is something that kings are particularly good at. In 1520, King Francis of France, looking to outdo his English counterpart, King Henry VIII, had his costumers bedeck his garments with 13,600 gold buttons. When he met the English king, he was disappointed to see that his rival was similarly bedecked and bedazzled with gold buttons. King Louis XIV, famous for his extravagance, spent over $5 million dollars on buttons in his lifetime.

We have Henry VIII to thank for the style of leaving the last button on a vest (or waistcoat for the English) undone. Henry was known for being, er, “generously proportioned.” In other words, he couldn’t see his toes, let alone fasten the last button on his waist coat. His courtiers took it as a style initiative, and soon everyone was leaving the bottom button undone, a style still adopted by gentlemen today.

Most men’s garments manufactured today button from left right, while women’s garments are the opposite. One reason may be is that most men dressed themselves, whereas aristocratic women needed the help of their servants to dress them and close their dozens of buttons. Chassidim, however, wear garments that button right over left.

In the 1600’s buttons were made of metal, glass, bone or wood. Those who could afford fine clothing would have dozens of closely spaced buttons fastening their clothes, because it was a given that if you could afford such finery, then you could also afford to employ a staff of servants to help you fasten them! American Indians were fascinated by the Europeans’ glass buttons, and often traded highly valuable items for what they considered an excellent deal in glass buttons. 

With industrialization, England became the world’s premier button manufacturer, mass producing decorative cloth and glass buttons. When Queen Victoria wore mourning after her husband, Prince Albert, died, her black gowns featured jet black glass buttons. This started a black glass button craze, and this became the most popular button in the 19th century.

During the 19th century, most women wore high buttoned shoes, fastened with a row of tiny, buttons, often made of pearls. One of the most important tools in a woman’s wardrobe was the buttonhook, which was a long handle with a small hook at the end.

Today, buttons are made of hundreds of different materials, including bone, shell, metal, horn and cloth. The most common, however, is plastic. Although zippers, hook-and-eye closures and Velcro has taken a fair share of the marketplace, buttons still remain the most popular way to fasten your clothes.

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