A brief guide to buttons

4 buttons on waistcoat

Image source: Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Public domain
Buttons: decorative, practical, and ancient

We use buttons on suits,shirts, boots, bags, trousers and tailcoats. They’re so ubiquitous that you probably don’t even give them a second thought.

But buttons are much more than they appear. They’re accessories that have been around for thousands of years. They are a part of the world’s cultural and fashion history; part of its fabric.

Early Buttons

Ancient bronze button

Image source: Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Public domain
An ancient gilt bronze button from Northern China (between 206 B.C.E.- C.E. 9)

We often dismiss buttons as a clothing sideshow – the work horses of the accessories world. But early buttons were in fact more akin to jewellery than the modern-day fastenings we’re familiar with.

At 5,000 years old, an ornamental button made from shell, and found in Pakistan is currently considered to be the oldest button in existence. Other early buttons were made out of materials including bone, horn, bronze and wood.

Later, buttons took on more practical duties. In ancient Rome buttons were used to secure clothes, some  having to support reams of fabric at a single point. But they were still a far cry from the slim, functional buttons you’re familiar with on your shirts and suits.

The Middle Ages: the invention of buttonholes

buttonhole in pair of jeans

Image source: Shutterstock
Buttonholes didn’t make their first appearance until the 13th century

Buttons being used as clothing fasteners continued for centuries. But it wasn’t until the 13th century that proper buttonholes were being sewn into clothes, and with them, new possibilities for clothing arose.

Buttons with actual buttonholes rather than looser toggles meant that clothes could have a much more form-fitting shape.

For all their prominence, buttons were still largely the privilege of the wealthy during this period. In the medieval era, buttons meant serious wealth – for both the wearer and the maker.

Many buttons were made with precious metals and costly fabrics, and as Slate points out, this era was

a time when you could pay off a debt by plucking a precious button from your suit.”

Towards the Renaissance, some larger buttons took on additional functions; they were used to hide keepsakes and stolen booty in small hidden chambers.

Industrial Revolution

Black and white photo of factory in early 19th century

Image source: Hugh McCormick Smith / Public domain
The inside of a busy button factory around the turn of the 19th century.

Of course, the less wealthy had buttons, too. These tended to be crudely made at home, until the Industrial Revolution, which ushered in the democratisation of buttons.

Around this time, the flat, four-holed button that we’re all familiar with emerged. Although the materials used have developed and the process refined since then it is still essentially the same button. This period also saw a rise in popularity for  brass buttons  on both military and civilian clothing.

The most popular buttons of the later half of the 19th century were made of black glass; an imitation of Queen Victoria’s habit of wearing black buttons following the death of Prince Albert. With her loyal subjects adopting her style, black glass fasteners became the most widespread variety of the 19th century.

Modern Buttons

tweed jacket with leather buttons

Image source: Grey Fox
Leather buttons – sometimes called “football buttons” after old-school leather footballs.

20th century designers and fashionistas flipped the original decorative use of buttons on its head: they became working accessories. Mass-production and materials like plastic made them prevalent, despite the invention of zipper.

That doesn’t mean modern buttons can’t still pack a decorative punch. Advances in technology mean that teddy bear-shaped buttons for children’s clothes can be as easily made as more conservative, stylish buttons for a suit.

Today, buttons are, once again, a good indicator of quality clothing. With more choice on the market, traditional buttons are making a resurgence. As Permanent Style notes:

“English tailors prefer matte, horn buttons… The natural materials are, of course, also associated with better suits.”

Another button-based sign of distinction is a jacket sleeve with working cuff buttons, as seen on our own classic tweed jacket.

There are even rules about buttons; there’s a rule relating to the correct way to button a suit jacket, for example. Edward VII was a portly king who couldn’t close his jacket all the way and Real Men Real Style explains:

“…as a result always left the bottom button undone. His subjects (either out of respect or fear), followed suit. The trend of leaving the bottom button undone caught on.”

Buttons as symbols

While ornate buttons aren’t the sole preserve of kings and aristocrats any more, they still serve as symbols of rank on military dress. Military expert, Kelly Badge, points out:

“buttons are as varied as cap badges. Each unit has its own unique regimental button, often with a crest and sometimes a crown,”

Such buttons can have meaning well beyond power and status. During World War II, a British soldier encountered a 12-year-old Jewish boy and his family fleeing from the Nazis. He pulled a button off his greatcoat to give the boy and advised them to go south through France, rather than towards Dunkirk.

The family eventually made their way to America where the button now sits in the collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Buttons have proven to be firmly fastened to the fabric of human society – at least the past five thousand years of it. Even with the development of zippers, poppers and velcro, buttons are still the fastening of choice for people the world over.

If you’ve still got burning button questions, check out our buttons infographic!

So are you a button man, or do you prefer the simplicity of the zip? Do you have any old buttons knocking around – perhaps some historical military ones? Share them with us on our Facebook page.

Posted in Men's suits.