Travelling down to the Sussex coast recently I found myself wondering at the suggestion that buttons might be ‘sexy’. In the general sense you understand. It sounded like a compliment, but I wasn’t entirely sure I understood what was meant. In a friend’s car, sleek and silent black carapace, with every gadget and creature comfort available, it seemed to me that this was exactly the sort of car people like to call sexy. All sorts of things can be sexy it seems. Cars, buildings, cutlery, wars, even whole countries it seems can be sexy as hell. Volvos, even if they house a nursery of offspring cannot compete with a sporty job that lacks the capacity for easy congress to take place. Obviously, sadly, long lean thighs are valued over chunky ones. Spain wins over Belgium perhaps. Caviar over coley. Some number sequences are sexy to the mathematician. Duffel coats tend to lack the allure of leather jackets, though I was told the former once clinched a crucial moment of desire. Clean air now rules over cigarette smoke, but some of us still miss its ancient draw. Wit over slapstick. Hell is sexier than heaven. But a cultural history of the button? Pull the other one.
Visiting Bexhill Museum’s newly revamped department of costume I studied the familiar token dusty tray of unidentified buttons. It included some unusual gilt and enamelled passionflowers, but it was difficult to raise much enthusiasm. Where were they from? What were they made of? The V&A has few of their collection on show. They are probably right to think more punters will be drawn to personal jewellery. Buttons are low key in our imaginations on the whole. In fact it is what I liked about them initially. I wanted something so ordinary as to be easily overlooked that could nonetheless tell a tale or two. And quite often the most surprising people are fond of buttons. But do they find them sexy? Come off it.
Some buttons are sexually provocative for they suggest the act of unbuttoning, buttons can seem to be about to pop open to expose the magnificence of the Incredible Hulk, expose cheeky Carry On crumpet or the upholstered cleavage of a Hollywood siren. To be tightly buttoned up has its own allure, from passion repressed to the sophistications of the leather or rubber buttoned sadomasochistic suit. Even the button hidden by placket or fly can cause the heart to beat faster. The button can in its own small way be erotically suggestive. But there is more to the button. More I would argue to any minor artefact, because there is more to us.
Sexy may sell – and I’m all for that – but at the same time I want to make a plea for those other aspects of human character that even minor notions of dress can reveal. On the one hand buttons can be just small, dull plastic things that well perform their function. There is a beauty in such minor objects, their simple, pleasing shape and ubiquitous practicality. Unlike a zip, if one is lost one’s clothing can still be held in place by the remaining buttons. They allow clothing to be close fitting and yet comfortable. They can act as glorious evidence of the flair and invention of the Enlightenment, as quiet memento mori, as proof of allegiance to the ancien régime, sometimes naughtily discreet on an inside pocket, as espionage receptacles, as compasses in the Second World War, as poignant witnesses to the Kindertransport in the handmade garments in which Jewish parents dressed their children to escape the Holocaust (see Jewish Chronicle 18.07.11), as evidence of Napoleonic splendour, of Russian military finery, celebrating the rights of women at the turn of the nineteenth century in Britain, of the anti-slavery movement in the US, lauding the Ku Klux Klan in the mid twentieth – or even as something you just happen upon at the back of a drawer. Suddenly you find yourself back in childhood playing the laughing farmer, clip-clop, with a grandfather’s coat buttons.
There are instances of ordinary buttons held in high esteem as the artist Ann Carrington recalled, where a most unsexy plain button was worn by a modern Zulu chief in full tribal regalia, at the centre of a fine, feathered headdress, to represent perhaps his mastery over the European. A young woman explained that returning to Iran, and required to don the manteau, she had had hers made with extra large buttons. Why? She explained that not only did this make it easy to quickly remove the coat once indoors, but also that it was a way of recognizing others of a similar persuasion.
On the other hand there is a danger in a modern idea of sexiness all pointing to what is aesthetically pleasing, young and flawless. It is curious to note that the term is less often employed by the young, who might harbour realistic hopes of living up to such a category. Conversely, even the most nondescript of buttons can sometimes suggest desire – a scratched fisheye plastic cardigan button, a plain washed out khaki services button, a splintered toggle from that duffle coat – all may evoke private, individual moments of sexual delight. ■
Nina Edwards is the author of On the Button, an inventive exploration of the cultural history of the button, from its forms and functions to its place in the visual arts.
You can also follow Nina on her blog, Buttons and Offal.