Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?

For the holidays, I received a copy of the book pictured below, and it had me thinking about the use of buttons in the Regency era.

Amazon describes this book, thusly: The button, both functional and decorative, can be deservingly considered an art form on a small scale. This book is a dazzling color array of outstanding examples. Thousands of buttons are featured in over 300 color plates. Debra Wisniewski, an avid collector, has chosen the most beautiful and fascinating buttons to represent the vast variety available. They are displayed in this gorgeous hardcover book which provides invaluable information to the collector – complete descriptions, dates, and of course, current values. The realistic price ranges given reflect actual prices paid and considerable discussion with other collectors. All ages, styles and materials are represented in this fascinating reference and value guide. It’s a perfect book for anyone who appreciates the art, craft, beauty, and skill apparent in these buttons. 

Okay, I admit I was telling someone about a book I had consulted previously about buttons in Regency era. I did not expect the person to send me the book pictured above. I was simply attempting to answer a question and could not recall the book written about a history of buttons. Although the one above is fabulous with its many examples, it is not the one I came across years ago.

Buttons, at least, multiple buttons on a garment was more a Victorian decoration, and it was late Victorian. In fact, there were few buttons on a woman’s clothes until the late Victorian period. That being said, women’s dresses did have some buttons, but nothing like those used for men’s coats. Men, however, had buttons on their breeches, pantaloons, trousers, waistcoats, and coats. They had them on the sleeves of their coats as well. Women’s clothes mostly tied on or used straight pins. Women were not supposed to be so active that they needed someway to keep clothes on when working. The women who worked had clothes that were sturdy and wrapped, tied, and laced.Buttons during the Regency were expensive and were on a woman’s dress as a decorative accent, rather than to hold two pieces of material together.

The History of Buttons tells us, “The Indus Valley Civilisation are credited with the invention of the button and the earliest one we have in existence today dates from around 2000 BCE and is made from a curved shell. The first buttons were used as ornamental embellishments to a person’s attire and signified wealth or status. They had small holes drilled into their surfaces and were attached to clothing by thread, often forming geometric patterns rather than the straight lines we know today. As the centuries progressed, the button became used more and more as a fastener for clothes, with the ancient Romans using them to fix clothing in place with pins. Over the centuries, the button evolved from an embellishment, to a more practical item. The middle ages brought with them the invention of the all-important buttonhole, which was to quietly revolutionise clothing. A stunningly-simple but elegant design, the geometrics allowed for the button to pass through the opening and be slotted firmly in place.  Fashion would never be the same again.”

Some illustrations for the time period show a garment with small buttons at the nape of the neck in women’s clothes or at the small of the back. Some replaced pins on an apron-like front with small buttons. A spencer or pelisse would probably have buttons.

A man’s shirt might have two buttons. Men’s shirts did NOT open all the way down the front. I came across this issue when I decided on a particular image for one of my new books. The guy was fabulous, but he had a buttoned down collar. Not possible in the Regency era!!! Which meant I had to move the story forward into the late Georgian and early Victorian period to come close to the style, for Button-down collars, or “sport collars,” have points fastened down by buttons on the front of the shirt. They were introduced by Brooks Brothers in the late 1800s. In the first book cover, one can still see the buttoned-down collar, but I am hoping most romance readers are looking at the male model instead. When I finally release this title by itself (It is now part of an anthology), I will revisit the issue then.

Drawstrings, hooks and eyes, and thread buttons were commonly used. A woman’s dress might be fastened with pins as well. 

Look at fashion pictures for half a century and you will not see many buttons. There are some, but not many. They tended to be more for decoration than have any utility purposes. Some years they were more fashionable than others.

Thread buttons are also called “Dorset buttons.” They were something of a cottage industry. The thread is wrapped around a thin ring of sheep’s horn. (Nothing wasted!) These weren’t expensive and were used for things like shirts and nightgowns. You can find out more on How to Make Dorset Buttons.

Another Resource:

A Brief History of Buttons Through the Ages


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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7 Responses to Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?

  1. Very interesting. One of my secretaries collected beautiful buttons.

  2. michellanious says:

    Hello Regina,

    I’ve tried multiple times to comment on this post, Regina, without success. Somehow I fear I HAVE succeeded at commenting but I myself cannot see it. I have trouble every time I have to use a WordPress site, but usually get around it somehow. At any rate, I wanted you to know I really enjoyed this post. The following is a copy of what I tried to write in my comment:

    Great article, I really loved reading the historical information. I’ve loved buttons since my Grandmother let me play with her tin of buttons. My Mom had one too and I inherited one of them. Although I have purchased some old buttons myself-usually of a whimsical style-my eye is really caught by the intricately beautiful ones that are little pieces of art in themselves, also out of my price range. I am so glad you included the link to Dorset buttons which have fascinated me for year, but the instructions in that link make them so easy to make. I have recently have come to appreciate the plainer, homely, (?) everyday buttons that are part of my older collection because when added to pieces of free-style needlework, done just for the pleasure of using odds and ends of fabric scraps, lace, etc., this hoarder of everything related to sewing has saved over the years, makes a piece of ephemeral art out of supposed junk. And those buttons I’m speaking of are actually rare these days. Pieces of bone, shell, wood, etc., all so often replaced by plastic today.

    I hope you get a chance to find your button history book again. I’m looking forward to the release of Bell, Book and Wardrobe. Thank you Regina.

    Have a great February, Regina.

    Michelle H mhemsath@hushmail.com


    • Good day, Michelle. I simply had to approve your comment before it showed. Like you, I have a box of buttons belonging to my mother. There are quite a few odd items in it. People in Appalachia were quite creative. There is a nice piece on Appalachia and buttons here: https://blindpigandtheacorn.com/a-button-box/

      • michellanious says:

        That was a great link to the Blind Pig and The Acorn site, and I enjoyed that article. There’s another kind of homemade button that fascinates me, made in centuries past that I cannot remember the name of. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about. They were made by weaving thread over an existing domed (?) piece of wood (?) and there were multiple designs used at the artistic ability/creativity of the maker. And I think there was the word ‘head’ in the name.

        Anyway, thank you again Regina. What a sweet little trip down Memory Lane. And I learned something too.

  3. They were called “death head,” Michelle. Here is a link from Colonial Williamsburg regarding them. I saw them there when we visited Williamsburg years ago. https://www.colonialwilliamsburg.org/trend-tradition-magazine/summer-2018/do-it-yourself-button/

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