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The History of the Button

Updated on March 13, 2009

Buttons are simple objects for use or for ornament with clothes or for the two combined, have a remote antiquity, but an interrupted career. One of the earliest sets must be the buttons unearthed in a grave of the third millennium B.C. at Ur of the Chaldees. The skeleton was discovered with a line of buttons down its breastbone from neck to waist. These fifteen Sumerian buttons were flattened, disc-shaped beads, one cm. in diameter, seven made of dark steatite and the rest of frit that had once been glazed. They lay in single file, almost touching one another; evidently they had served as buttons down the front of a garment which had otherwise disintegrated.

By 2000 B.C. buttons were being worn in Crete, made of some perishable material covered with thin gold foil. The foil is left and preserves two stitch holes. Similar button-casings of bronze have been found in Hungary dating to the Early Bronze Age. By the Middle Bronze Age they were fairly common in Europe. Going back in time to the third millennium B.C., the people of the Harappa culture and the great prehistoric cities of the Indus Valley were buttoning themselves with buttons of a very distinctive type. These were plano-convex discs, perforated on the flat face by two holes which converge to an inverted V; the holes, in fact, intercommunicate. Similar buttons are associated with the Beaker cultures of Europe, with peoples who arrived in Britain at the end of the neolithic period, somewhere about 1800 B.C. These V-buttons have been found at several sites in Britain, sometimes made of Whitby jet, decorated in low relief. They are known from lake sites in Italy and also from Malta, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands and Provence.

In Greece during the Late Bronze Age - the period of Mycenae - buttons are frequently found both in tombs and on settlement sites. It is uncertain what part they played in fastening the full, ankle-length, flounced and pleated skirts, and small, tight, short-sleeved jackets open at the breasts which, from frescoes, ivories and vase-paintings are known to have been the formal costume of the aristocratic ladies of Mycenae, and the other cities in Greece and elsewhere which shared that brilliant civilization. Though they are sometimes biconical, the normal shape for these buttons is either a flattened cone with the top cut off, or plano-convex. Others have a distinct shank that shades off imperceptibly into the body of the button. Between 1550 and 1400 B.C. they are normally made of terracotta, but later examples are often made of steatite, sometimes decorated with simple incised patterns.

All types are alike in being pierced by a single hole through the centre from top to bottom; they were evidently attached by threading a piece of stout cord, or a leather thong through this hole. The thong was knotted at the top to keep it in place; the lower part was then stitched to the garment. There is no means of deciding whether these buttons were used with button-holes or loops.

After the Mycenaean period a change in costume took place in Greece, and the sophisticated and extremely beautiful Mycenaean dresses were replaced by a simpler and more austere set of garments in which, for several hundred years, little or no use was made of buttons. The basic garment, worn with slight variation by both men and women, was the chiton, two types of which existed, the Doric and the Ionian. The Doric chiton was shaped like a blanket, folded in half and worn with the fold down one side of the body. The material was doubled at the shoulders, where, at either shoulder, the front and back folds were fastened together by pins which rested just in front of the shoulder-blade; the garment was gathered at the waist by a belt or girdle. In a second style of Doric chiton the material was shaped like a cylinder open at both ends; it was pinned at the shoulder in the same fashion. Pins, however, went out of use in Greece by the end of the seventh century B.C., and when the Ionian chiton replaced the Doric at Athens, buttons appeared in service again.

Herodotus has a strange story to account for this change, which he says took place at the time of a bitter war between Athens and Aegina; in a terrible battle between the two, all save one of the Athenians engaged were killed; as for this one survivor: 'When he came back to Athens, bringing word of the calamity, the wives of those who had been sent out on the expedition took it sorely to heart, that he alone should have survived the slaughter of all the rest; - they therefore crowded round the man, and struck him with the pins by which their dresses were fastened - each, as she struck, asking him where he had left her husband. And the man died in this way. The Athenians thought the deed of the women more horrible even than the fate of the troops; as however they did not know how else to punish them, they changed their dress and compelled them to wear the costume of the lonians.'

The Ionic chiton was sewn up the side, opposite the fold, and across the top, leaving holes for arm and neck. Later, however, the top seam was replaced by buttons by which the dress was closed from the neck to the side seams. This was an improvement which must have made the garment much easier to take on and off and, incidentally, made matters very much easier for nursing mothers. The stuff was carefully pleated at a number of symmetrically chosen points, back and front, and then sewn into a pair of bands; the back and front bands were joined by buttons and loops.

Buttons were used by men on their chitons, but to a lesser degree. They sometimes used them also for securing armour. A black-figure amphora of the sixth century B.C. by the Attic painter Nikosthenes shows a soldier whose cuirass is fastened to its shoulder-straps by buttons, a detail repeated on some Etruscan bronze figurines of armed warriors. Buttons of the classical period in Greece were sometimes made of beautifully variegated glass, but more often they were small undecorated bone discs, with a single hole like their Mycenaean predecessors. The knot in securing the thong is often indicated on vase-paintings by a spot of dark paint in the centre of the button.

A long series of buttons, from the fifth century B.C. to the twelfth century A.D., has been found during excavations at the ancient city of Corinth. It is very noticeable that the button with single hole is much the most common type. A few with two holes appear in Roman contexts of the fourth century A.D., but the type does not persist. The very large number of buttons of the Byzantine period, many of which are very well made, lathe-turned, with a good deal of variation in form and decoration, all have the one hole, a type which persists to the present day in parts of south-east Europe - in Croatia, for example.

In Iron Age, Roman and Saxon Britain brooches were so widely used for the fastening of clothes that button are not conspicuous. In fact, even in the Middle Ages, though they were occasionally used for ornament, they do not seem to have made their way on to garments to any great extent before the fifteenth century. Buttons were doubtless tiresome things to manufacture in relation to their size and importance, they were not so necessary on loose-fitting clothes, and there were fairly satisfactory alternatives. From the seventeenth century the manufacture of buttons became one of the staple industries of Birmingham. Gradual adoption of modern European clothing through so much of the world has brought the button, now mass produced by machinery out of a variety of materials from wood and metal and horn and glass to rubber and plastic, to the peak of its unimportant importance.

Even with the invention of the zip-fastener, the humble button still has a future in the fashion industry.


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