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Bright as a button

May 12, 2009

Buttons, glorious buttons! Perfect little worlds in miniature. The idea of jewellery for men may have raised a few eyebrows for centuries, but buttons have always been an acceptable form of embellishment. Witty, pretty or sizzling with secret messages, buttons are (and have always been) beautiful finishing details on a waistcoat or jacket.

Back in 1786 in France the Petit Maitres, who were basically the French equivalent of the English fop (the term arose before the French Revolution, when a great dignitary was styled a grand-maître, and a pretentious one a petit-maître), elevated buttons to an art form. In 1800 the author Isaac Disraeli somewhat scathingly recounted a mania for buttons:

No sooner a mode appeared but the futility levity and fury of the petit maitres made it degenerate into the most whimsical extravagance. In 1786 reigned the mania of buttons. They not only wore them of an enormous size as large as crown pieces but they painted on them minatures and other pictures so that a set of buttons was often valued at an incredible price. Some of these petit maitres wore the modest medals of the twelve Cesars, others antique statues and others the metamorphosis of Ovid. At the Palais Royal a cynic was seen who impudently wore on his buttons above thirty figures from Aretin* so that every modest woman (if there was a modest woman in Paris) must have been obliged to turn away from this eccentric libertine. The young men imitated the romantic fancy of the ancient knights of chivalry and wore on their buttons the cypher of their mistress, and the Parisian wits exercised their puny talents by forming with the letters of the alphabet insipid rebuffs. In a word the manufacture of buttons was a work of imagination which wonderfully displayed the genius of the artist and the purchaser and which offered an inexhaustible fource for conversation.

From Domestic anecdotes of the French nation, during the last thirty years, indicative of the French revolution by Isaac Disraeli. 


*Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) was an Italian poet, playwright and satirist said to have invented modern literate pornography. In 1524, Aretino wrote some sonnets to accompany the drawings of sixteen sexual positions by Giuliano Romano, Raphael’s talented twenty-five-year-old pupil. Their collaboration produced one of history’s most notorious works of erotic art. We couldn’t find any pictures of Aretino buttons. But we looked very hard. Very hard indeed.


Buttons all from the period c.1775-1800 from the collection of the Met Museum, New York and the V&A, London

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