Buttons and Toggles. When did they appear, and is everything that looks like a button or toggle actually used to close your clothes, or are they just decor? What size were they and what were they made of? Who wore them? And does your definition of a button require that the button actually be pushed through a hole in fabric or leather, or can the button be used with a loop?
This picture shows some typical ancient artifacts. On the left we have a Celtic or Roman toggle, the middle six buttons are typical medieval buttons and the right most button is a fancy Tudor button.
Lots of questions, and not as many definitive answers as I would like to have. One of the problems that we deal with is that the older the button, the less likely we are to find it attached to a piece of clothing. In Egypt, for instance, we find a lot of “button-like objects” some of which are made of really beautiful blue faience. Many date from 1479 to 1458 BC. But when they are found in well-preserved burials we see them used as part of necklaces.
By the time we get to Persia, in about the 3rd to 7th century AD, we are seeing hundreds of button-like objects, most taking the form of round disks, made of ivory or bone, and some have simple carved designs on them.
Could these disks have been used as buttons? Sure. Were they? No clue. We know that by the early 1500’s we find tons of Persian Miniature Paintings that show buttons in use on clothing. In this Painting “Standing Youth with Staff”, we can see that his outer coat is closed with a row of buttons, probably anchored closed with loops – not pushed through button holes.
The Romans and Celts both appear to have used toggles. Here is a Celtic Iron Age Toggle. And here is another toggle where they are uncertain if it is Roman or British. The Roman carving that is known as the Camomile Street Soldier shows the use of both buttons and toggles on his clothing.
And what about colder climates? Logically keeping your clothes tighter around yourself would be more important if the weather was colder. We find buttons in the graveyard in Birka, Sweden. These look like standard Medieval buttons that you could find anywhere in Europe. This pdf includes a picture of the buttons along with a picture of a leg wrap hook and some other assorted artifacts.
The Skjoldehamn bog find includes a shirt. This page has a diagram of the shirt, which has been carbon dated to 995-1029 AD. The striped square (actually strips of trim on a flap) that covers the neck opening on the shirt, is closed with a bead that is used as a button, and a loop.
And then there is the question of who wore them. I just got a message from a friend asking about buttons on women’s dresses. We do see them sometimes on the outside layer of a Gothic fitted gown, but all of the structural “stress” is controlled by the underlayer, which is laced. The expansion and contraction that most women experience every month (not to mention pregnancy) is controlled by lacing or the use of pins to hold plackets in place. So most buttons in Europe, prior to the 1600s were worn by men.
Next Time: Fibulae, Dress Pins, and Misc Brooches