Ever wondered how the lowly button came to be?
Buttons are actually more ancient than what most people believe- they are thought to be as old as clothing itself.
The oldest button was found in the Mohenjo-daro region in the Indus Valley, now known as modern day Pakistan. It is estimated to be around 5000 years old, with a decorative flat face that fits into a loop, and is primarily made out of curved shell. However, according to historian and author Ian McNeil, these objects don’t function like modern buttons do. They serve more as ornaments rather than fasteners, and are almost never arranged in rows (like in today’s shirts), but are used singly as decorative flourish.
Buttons were also used by the Ancient Romans. However, their flowing garments (that were usually made out of a substantial amount of cloth) required hefty buttons made out of strong materials like wood, horn, and bronze. These poked large unsightly holes into garments, and soon fell out of favor among Ancient Roman clothiers.
Interestingly enough, Romans also invented the fibula as an alternative to the button. This was an early version of the safety pin, though the design was lost until it was rediscovered again during the 19th century Industrial Era in the United States.
The Middle Ages is when the button’s use as a functional fastener started to take hold. In Europe, close-fitting clothes became in vogue among nobles and royalty, and buttons were used to help the garments fit more snugly around the wearers’ body. For women, it’s the bosom that was accentuated, while for men, it’s the arms.
In 16th century France, button makers’ guilds started to pop up. These guilds regulated the production of buttons, as well as passed laws regarding their use. Though the buttons of the Middle Ages are already functional, they are still seen as a symbol of prosperity and prestige. Only those who are rich enough to afford them can be allowed to wear elaborate buttons. If you’re poor or from the lower class, you are forbidden to wear clothes with an egregrious amount of buttons.
The Industrial Revolution helped popularize and democratize buttons. For once, buttons can now be had by the masses and their use are not limited to just the upper classes alone. Buttons can now be mass-produced cheaply.
When the 20th century came along, the price of buttons further dipped with the introduction of a new material- plastic. Plastic is far cheaper than bone, bronze, horn, shell, or metal- and as such became the perfect material with which to craft buttons out of.