Sunday, March 22, 2015

Button Up!

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs on the rue de Rivoli, forms one side of the massive complex of buildings that houses the Musée du Louvre, the Caroussel du Louvre, and the many and varied departments of the Louvre. You enter from the rue de Rivoli, and you can walk straight through the entry hall and step out into the gardens of the Tuileries. Red banners hang outside on the rue de Rivoli, heralding its presence, but somehow I often find myself forgetting it's there. Perhaps it is just overshadowed by the grandeur of expanse of the Musée du Louvre itself.  On its own merits, however, it holds one of the world's largest decorative arts collections, more than half a million artifacts, largely formed by donations and bequests.  Fashions, textiles, furnishings, graphic designs, rare and ancient documents all form part of the collection.

And buttons!

Made from beads...

...made from raffia...

...made from mother-of-pearl, wood, leather, ceramic, stone, gold and other metals, made from papier mâché, silk passementerie, fur, pretty much any material you can think of...

...even Wedgewood china! Some 3000 such small items, from the collection of Loïc Allio (acquired by the museum in 2012), are currently on display in a special exhibition that provides a wonderful journey through history, art, and fashion.

In the 18th century, for example, the usual wardrobe of a French gentleman included a jacket, waistcoat and breeches, adorned with buttons in a specific order, signifying his social status.

A vest could be richly embroidered, with toggles fastening the brocaded, passementerie buttons in a strictly form-fitting line.

Production of buttons was highly controlled, divided between different guilds, depending on the materials and techniques used. Rosary makers were charged with making bone buttons, and only silversmiths were allowed to use precious materials. This beautiful velvet jacket from 1790 has striking copper buttons, enameled in blue with decorative pearl beads edging each one, and with a starburst circling the centre. Only 3 buttons are functional, the rest are merely ornamental, leaving the jacket open at the neck and bottom.

By the 19th century, men's clothing sobered up considerably. Understated elegance became the order of the day. On waistcoats, buttons reinforced the cut and line of the garment, but discreetly, giving a note of sophistication. I love the little buttons on the lapels of this waistcoat.

The same held true for spats...

...and men's kid gloves. Somehow, these last three items made me think of Soames Forsythe  marching steadfastly every day up Ludgate Hill to his office!

For women, on the other hand, the 19th century heralded a bold step into the world of buttons, particularly inspired in the early years by the uniforms of the Hussars.

Perhaps a reflection of the bravery of these soldiers during the Napoleonic era, braiding and rows of buttons became the vogue for women.

By mid-century, with crinolines in full swing, buttons became a huge decorative device. On this luscious dress, seven taffeta buttons fall neatly in line from the neck to the waist, whilst the skirt has eight more, each one bordered with elaborate lace, creating flower "blossoms" down to the hem.

During the Second Empire, lines of buttons fell in a regulated way, giving shape and symmetry to the body, supposedly highlighting balance and modesty, as decorum required! Buttons tended to be the same color as the dress, or a darker color to match trim or braiding.

By the 1880's the bodice stayed tight and firm, holding women's bodies in place (!), even in coats like this orange travelling coat, with its dramatic shoulders and large pairs of buttons lining up down the front.

Soft kid-leather boots were in vogue, with up to two dozen buttons to close and open -- no wonder the button hook was invented!

Not quite so many on these silvery satin evening boots, with the cute button hook hanging behind, in the shape of a boot!

Underwear, too came with buttons. This pretty set seems very loose and comfortable, but this is the look before the corset and stays are tied on and tightened, to make the female body look like the dress on the left!

By now and moving forward into the 20th century, buttons were being mass produced and mass promoted, with catalogs displaying the very latest in design and materials.

Although you could still order your own box of buttons from Lucien Tesson, exquisitely hand-painted landscapes and birds, a rare treasure.

A sea change began to occur for women around 1910. The female silhouette became more linear, the designer Paul Poiret tossed out the corset and freed up women's bodies, highlighting their shape with rows of buttons placed along the seamlines, with false buttonholes or small loops of braid.

New materials included the use of celluloid, an early plastic, which took off in the 1920s in the world of jewellry and buttons, in bright colors...

...and striking black and white asymmetrical shapes and designs.

By the 1930's, fashion was all about the cut and drape of the fabric, as these two crèpe-de-chine day dresses show so beautifully, with the diagonal, black, ball-shaped buttons on the right hand dress echoing the drape effect.

With the advent of WWII, buttons took on a distinctly patriotic look and flavor. Here, the shape of the country of France, the colors of the flag, and the famous French rooster symbol all get transformed into buttons!

With dress materials in limited supply during the war, dressmakers looked to buttons to brighten and "buck up" the populace. In this classic shirtwaist not only does the eye go to the buttons and the buckle, but also to the decorative stitching on the bodice and around the hem.

By now, of course, the world of "haute couture" had long been established in France and elsewhere, and the doyens of this world continued to use buttons to focus and accent garments. This Christian Dior dress from the 1940's has a double row of round black buttons running down the back from top to bottom, revealing below the waist, an inset panel of tiny pleats. Dior believed that buttons "could even help give a dress its full meaning."

Those buttons, though, are clearly not functional, which would not have pleased Coco Chanel, who never placed a button on a garment without it having a corresponding buttonhole! They were arranged in a highly symmetrical manner, rather like a military uniform. The buttons themselves might be gilded and stamped with her own insignia.

From her 1958 collection, Elsa Schaparelli offered this beautiful red wool jacket with ceramic buttons and, calling on the "paruriers" (makers of fine jewellry and accessories), adorned the collar and pocket lapels with some kind of decorative swirls of metallic braid, or actual metal chains, I couldn't quite figure out which.
Andrès Courrèges, on the other hand, in 1965 unveiled a line of clothing with an almost austere line, highlighted with simple round disks for buttons. I lived in London in the early 1960's, and I was reminded of a Jaeger suit I bought with similar lines, very simple, straight skirt (mini in length!), boxy jacket, plain buttons. A far cry from those blue enameled, pearl-encrusted buttons the gentleman in 1790  sported on his velvet jacket!

As I strolled back out on to the rue de Rivoli, I thought about how small most buttons are, and yet what a familiar, every day part of our lives and our clothing they occupy. Just about every woman I know has a box of buttons somewhere in their house, full of spare buttons, odd buttons, buttons handed down from parents and grandparents, buttons waiting for a garment that will be perfect for them, etc. They tell stories of status and memories and dreams and wishes to come. True treasures.

I quickly buttoned up my coat as a cold gust of wind blew me back to the bus stop. The spring that peeked her head in here a couple of weeks ago has vanished, temperatures have been hovering in the upper 40's, skies are grey and low. The solar eclipse was only evident because the light in the sky dimmed seriously around 10 am on that day! So, we are taking a little break to visit with the kids and the grandkids on the Isle of Vieques, Puerto Rico!  Further Parisian adventures when we return in mid-April.

À bientôt!


  1. Yes I too have a a beautiful (broken) glass vase of buttons. And some of Granny's 'Civil Defense' one's from her coat.
    Stay warm, and buttoned up.

  2. I have my grandmother's button box from the 1940s , a cherished treasure! Susan