Buttons or button-like artifacts have been used since pre-history for ornamentation. They have been noted in virtually every imprtant civilization. There are few such examples of artifacts with such cross-cultural apparance. Some cultures such as the Romans may have used them as fastening devices, but this is not proven. Rudimentary buttons appear to be first used for fastening by Europeans in the 13th century, but were much more common in the 14th century. Soon buttons became a status symbol and men competed to see who could have the best, the largest or the most intricate buttons. The display of buttons, especially expensively crafted buttons, during the 16th century became a way to demonstrate one's wealth. Wealthy people might have buttons made of, or set with, precious stones. Some religious groups rebelled against such ostentaion and refused to wear buttons. Hand crafted bittons were common until the 19th century when mass production began. Now most buttons are made of plastic.
The invention of the button is lost in the fog of history. Few attributes
of clothing have such ancient origins and such cross cultural utilization. Buttons are known to have existed in prehistory. Buttons have been found as far back as the Bronze age when they were worn as ornamentation. They were used to decorate belts and other metal objects. Primitive man used thorn and sinew to hold clothing together. Bone stick pins were also used. With the introduction of metals came metal pins.
Many of the earliest great civilizations used buttons. The ancient Egyptians used then. But they primarily used cloth ties and broaches or buckles to hold their clothes together. The Greeks and Romans are thought to have actually worn buttons to fasten their clothes. Buttons were also used by the old Norse. The "iceman" found in the Alps had a few, as did the pre-Colombian Americans, not to mention the Chinese.
Buttons or button-like artifacts have been used as ornamentation from the earliest times, but did not became popular as fasteners until later. Some sources report buttons used as fastners as early as the 13th century. Most sources date buttons as being more commion by the 14th and 15th century because fitted clothing had become fashionable in Europe.
Buttons were being used in the 13th century. According to Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things by Charles Panati, buttons began to be used as fasteners on clothing in Western Europe by the 13th century, although decorative buttons without buttonholes were several thousand years earlier. They are clearly visible on European paintings in the 13th century. The 13th century saw form-fitting clothes come into vogue in Europe. Buttons thus became necessary as fasteners. They were at the time very
expensive and made out of materials such as horn, wood, and metal. Clothes at the time were hand sewn, thus the placement of the buttons was up to the tailor or seamstress.
The use of buttons as a fastener become much more common in the 14th century. Soon buttons became a status symbol and men competed to see who could have the best, the largest or the most intricate buttons.
Buttons by the 15th century could be quite elaborate. They were used by the nobility and made of silver and gold. Buttons were made with exquisite paintings on them. They were carved, inlaid, stamped and covered. Craftsmen were hired just to make buttons.
The display of buttons, especially expensively crafted buttons, during the 16th century became a way to demonstrate one's wealth. Wealthy people might have buttons made of, or set with, precious stones. French king Francis I (1494-1547), for example, had 13,600 gold buttons on a single costume. The fashion-conscious aristocracy and other wealthy individuals began spending exorbitant sums on buttons. This reached a point that some religious sects dedicated to simple, non-austentious lives banned the use of buttons altogether. They would use only hooks and eyes to fasten their clothing.
The French court was notorious for button displays. Louis XIV (1638-1715) had silver-covered bone buttons on the uniforms of his soldiers.
Wealthy individuals in the 18th century bought hand-crafted buttons, sometimes made out of semi-precious materials, and hand painted or engraved. Many inovations were noted in the 18th Century. Metal buttons were used and button covering was created. Metal threads were wound about a button in intricate patterns. Miniature scenes were painted on ivory or glass buttons. Some buttons were engraved and inlaid with silver. Caspar Wistar, a German immigrant, began making brass buttons in Philadelphia about 1750. Louis XVI (1754-1793) had courtiers who used buttons to outdo each other. Metal buttons were widely worn on the Colonial revolutionary war (1775-83) uniforms, mostly imported from France.
The mass production of buttons began in the 19th century. Accepted conventions concerning the buttoning of men and women's clothes begin to develop in the 19th century.
Buttons in the twentieth century. The most common material has become plastic
material--certainly a far cry from the elegant buttons that once adorned European clothing. But other materials are still used in the 20th century, such as metal. Matal buttons, for example, can be still commonly found on blazers.
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