Field Grey Icons: A Brief History of the Button

13.05.2019

The humble button has a rich history. Originally ornamental, the button is both a practical item and a tool for decoration and symbolism. The world’s greatest museums hold thousands of buttons in their collections, many with cultural, political and historic significance. Buttons were signals of wealth and status and they provide intimate insights into the past.

Here we chart a very brief history of the button, along with some of our favourite examples.

Etymology

The word ‘button’ comes from the Old French word bouton, and in historic times, buttons were used as decoration and signals, rather than as a practical, fastening aid. There are countless examples of decorative buttons from as far back as c.2800–2600 BC, where the objects were used as ornaments and seals. The oldest button is believed to be an example from the Indus Valley – modern day Pakistan, made from a curved shell.

Examples of Indus Valley buttons
Examples of buttons found in the Indus Valley

Ancient Buttons

Before the button hole, buttons themselves were jewels, and an often inexpensive way of transforming dress. The ancient Romans used large buttons to decorate their togas, often crumbling under the strain of all that white toga fabric. Materials like bone, wood, precious metals and stones were fashioned into clothing decorations, embellished with other materials or carved into symbolic shapes.

Roman Button
Ancient Roman Buttons

The Middle Ages

It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the button hole was invented, and the function of the button began. Buttons were practical both for bringing fabric together, providing structure, and allowing the function of garments that opened and closed. Buttons were made of such expensive materials that they were often used a currency, too.

Middle Ages Button Buttons

The Industrial Revolution

Buttons were mass produced in factories at the turn of the 20th century; shops stocking only buttons were a familiar site on the high street. The archetypal design – a circular button with four thread holes – was born in the factories of Britain’s Industrial Age.

Mass produced iconic buttons button
Mass produced buttons

The Button in Fashion

Designers quickly gathered that buttons were much more than a practical tool. Themes of collections could be explored through button designs. Chanel branded her buttons with her iconic double-C identity, while Elsa Schiaparelli created hundreds of dazzling designs, using insects and inanimate objects as inspiration.

Elsa Schiaparelli Button Met Museum
Elsa Schiaparelli buttons, 1938. Image courtesy Met Museum

Pearly Kings and Queens

There are fewer icons in cultural history whose dedication to buttons is more prevalent than the Pearly Kings and Queens. For two centuries, Pearlies have raised money for charitable causes in the East End of London for working class families. Their iconic jackets, decorated tip to toe with mother-of-pearl buttons, are famous worldwide. The organisation’s founder, Henry Croft, was a street sweeper who collected donations and first began sewing buttons onto his suit in the 1870s, birthing a much-loved tradition that is alive and well today.

Pearlyv King Jacket Buttons Button

The Button in Uniform

Like fashion, buttons are used as clever tools within uniform design. Historically, buttons have a rich history in military uniforms, displaying national insignia and rank.

US Military Uniform Button
US Military Uniform Button

In modern uniforms, buttons are used as a branding device. Airline uniforms are a strong example, with the world’s global flag carriers embedding their respective logos on button designs. At Field Grey, we often create branded buttons for clients.

Virgin Atlantic Uniform Buttons
Virgin Atlantic Cabin Crew Uniform

Koumpounophobia

Koumpounophobia is the rare, irrational fear of buttons, both loose and on clothing. It’s thought that 1 in 75,000 suffer from the phobia, avoiding any items of clothing that feature buttons. We only hope they don’t stumble across this article.

On the Catwalks Today

Designers regularly use buttons in their collections to make big statements. Playing with the scale and materials of buttons can form cohesive themes throughout entire collections. From Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel to JW Anderson, who uses exaggerated button sizes in his collections, there are countless examples on the catwalks today. Here are some of our recent favourites: