Running fingers over buttons gives a very satisfying feeling – they feel like candy or coins. But these buttons can also give you a lot of information. They have a long history.
The earliest buttons were not for fastening, though. People living Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley used to wear them as ornaments. 5000 years back, they were made of curved shells. Buttons were in use in ancient Rome too, along with pins, buckles, and brooches. Romans buttons were made of wood, bronze, and even bones.
Buttons in the Middle Ages
It was during the 11th century that clothes first started to be close-fitting, and buttons were used to get the snug fit. The wealthy of the time still preferred to have excess fabric, but the buttons were used to accentuate lines of the arm and also the bosom of women and men’s clothes. In 1250 France, a button-makers guild was formed.
Their use was, however, still largely restricted. Only the extremely rich could wear and display many buttons. They were so costly that entire debts could be paid back by simply plucking off a button from a suit and handing it over. The Italians referred to rooms where the powerful people met as “rooms of the buttons”. Buttons were also used on detachable sleeves along with bows, laces, and ribbons. This fad was popular between the 13th and the 15th centuries.
After the Renaissance
Buttons were used in other ways at this time. They contained keepsakes like hair cuttings, insects, and dried flowers. Thieves used hollowed-out buttons to transport jewels and other precious items secretly. It was around this time when men and women started wearing them in different sides. With men, the buttons were on their right, while in women with ladies’ maids, they were seen on the left.
Those not as rich, started wearing buttons as well. But they had to themselves curve them out by hand. Till early 20th century, a working class family could feel lucky if they could wear a button. Probably the first themed button, a political one, was seen on George Washington in 1789. It was made of brass and copper.
The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution accelerated button-making, thereby greatly reducing the price. For the first time, there was automation. Steel dies were cut into fashionable shapes. Children and women used to stamp out pasteboard and cloth and used machines for covering the buttons. Machines were also used to stamp out the holes.
Suddenly there were hundreds of buttons available for clothing of the time. They were also used in shoes. But the expensive ornamental buttons were still doing well. Victorian buttons had small bouquets with flowers, which often gave away symbolic messages. Queen Victoria was seen wearing mourning buttons when her husband Albert died.
Entry of the Zipper
Zippers first arrived at the turn of the century, but buttons are still popular today. That’s because, zippers will sometimes jam or catch fingers. Velcro has its problems too. There are laces as well, but buttons will always be there. There is a high-fashion element and convenience that cannot be denied.