traffic-people-cardiganAn old cigar box, full of lovely vintage buttons is a common find.  Why did generations before us collect these functional but carefully made objects with such dedication?  Charlotte Sterland looks at – and illustrates – her favourite vintage  buttons.

Apparently my great-grandmother said “the button is the face of the garment”.  A button can have any design; woven and intricate, soft and feminine, stubbornly plain or even aggressive.  We all have a lot of buttons.  Jackets, blouses, dresses, jeans all display them and perhaps we don’t pay as much attention to them as the women who collected them before us, but we certainly wear them, just as we wear necklaces, bags and belts.

Buttons are important in what we choose to wear.  We can be persuaded either way by a garment depending on the button.  If I think of all the items in my wardrobe, I can describe the buttons on each.  The more aware we are of why a garment works, or more specifically works for us and our purposes, the more likely we are to be aware of the buttons.

So maybe we should be able to see past the effect the buttons have on us, and be prepared to change the buttons to suit the garment.   Should we be able to look at a garment and not judge it by the buttons, but be ready to replace them?  Well it depends on how much we like to make and mend, but I think generally not only do we prefer to buy a product that already suits our needs, but in many cases we are not even aware of how much of an effect a button has on our choice.

A good, well matched button suggests thoughtfulness, both in the design and our judgment.  So what are my own buttons like?

green-cardigan-259x300I like strong, ornate buttons for knitwear, to contrast with the softness of wool.  For example my favourite vintage cardigan (green, pictured), has buttons inscribed with a coat of arms surrounded by abstract horses and Latin words (quite a lot for a medium sized button!).

My long silver cardigan from retro brand Traffic People (above) has a silver floral design indented in medium sized black plastic buttons.   My short purple Yves Saint Laurent jacket (below) is simple, with long black velvet lapels and crisp, large, matte gold buttons which give it the solidarity and attention it seeks.  These items would not be nearly as captivating without these buttons.


My fascination with buttons has lead me to some serious mistakes, for example when I bought a scruffy white jacket with holographic buttons.  They just do not feel right, and I can’t part with the piece until I figure out why.

As I flick through an old copy of Italian vogue, buttons don’t jump out at me.  They don’t distract from the lines of a body or eyes and lips, or jewellery.  This is a combination of careful design and good photography.

buttonA button can say as much as an earring or a brooch.  It can compliment or distract from an outfit, and influence our choices with clothes whether we are always aware of it or not.

Buttons were important to our ancestors, not just for their function but their ability to make or break an outfit, and because people just couldn’t afford so many clothes.  The message a button sends, however, is as strong as ever

4 Responses

  1. Jenny Hammerton

    One of my favourite things in the world is my mother’s tin of old buttons. The tin itself probably dates from the 1950s and it has a picture of a poodle on the lid. Myself (or possibly one of my three brothers and sisters) defaced the eyes of the poodle many, many years ago! It is full of beautiful buttons and I sometimes wonder if I should actually say to my mum (who is getting elderly now) don’t EVER throw that poodle tin away and replace it with something new! Jx

  2. robbie

    My mother, now 85, hand sewn buttons on cards, she took them off of EVERYTHING that was going to become a rag. Now I have hundreds of buttons from the 40s, 50s and 60s, and who knows when. I have leather buttons, beautiful metal buttons, colored buttons and lot’s and lot’s of white buttons. I tried to sell and then give away at a recent garage sale I had, could hardly give any away, I think it’s to much work for the American people to sew anymore. Any way, I’ll keep them just in case I NEED A CERTAIN BUTTON!

  3. Carol Royer

    I have a collection of old buttons and have no idea to find out the value. Some of the buttons are probably rare and/or extremely old. Is there a website out there that gives pictures and value of certain buttons?

    • Lena

      It’s not something I’ve ever come across, depending on the age, I’d take them to an antiques or vintage dealer.