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Who, What, When, Wear

The ubiquitous button, that practical and sometimes fancy fastener of clothing, survives largely unchanged from ancient times. As early as 2000 BC, buttons were used as ornaments in the Indus Valley and as seals during the Bronze Age in China and in ancient Rome. Their use as clothing fasteners first appeared in 13th century Germany, slowly replacing laces and ties as fashions for snugly fitting clothing spread. Buttons soon combined utility and ornamentation, a dual purpose that continues to this day.

Buttons that traced the human body’s lines offered suggestive points of access. Buttons made of precious metals or gemstones could be worn as portable wealth. A man could pay a debt with a valuable button. Buttons found favor as a practical method to attach and swap out pieces of clothing to conform to fashion or reduce wear and tear on certain articles.  They enabled sleeves to be detached for laundering or to vary the look of a particular garment. Sometimes buttons served as miniature containers for keepsakes, such as a lock of hair or dried flower petals, or a sneaky method to smuggle jewels or other loot.

Wealthy and aristocratic persons in ages past did not wear branded clothing to advertise their superior social and economic status; they proclaimed their superiority through luxurious fabrics and ornamentation, which included buttons made of precious metals and gemstones. Frances Elizabeth Baldwin’s study of sumptuary laws, Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England, specifies three motives that led to the enactment of sumptuary laws: 

(1) the desire to preserve class distinctions, so that any stranger could tell by merely looking at a man's dress to what rank in society he belonged; (2) the desire to check practices which were regarded as deleterious in their effects and the feeling that luxury and extravagance were in themselves wicked and harmful to the morals of the people; (3) economic reasons: (a) the endeavor to encourage home industries and to discourage the buying of foreign goods, and (b) the desire on the part of the sovereign to have his people save up their money, so that they might be able to help him out in time of need.
Sumptuary laws concerned color, material, and style. In ancient Rome, lawmakers enacted sumptuary laws to rein in sartorial extravagance and codify social and political rank. For instance, only the emperor was permitted to wear purple garments. Eighth century Persia decreed that Christians had to wear blue and Jews had to wear yellow. In 1215, Pope Innocent III mandated that Jews and Muslims wear clothing that distinguished their religions. During Korea’s Joseon dynasty (1392 - 1897), they codified colors of the ceremonial overcoat worn by high-ranking women proclaimed their relationships to the king and made the determination of rank simple. 

In fifteenth century Germany, the council of Nürnberg specified in great detail the permitted attire of ordinary citizens, from the way they wore their hair to the soles of their shoes: “A woman might have her cloak lined with fur, provided it did not as a result, with all appurtenances, buttons, coverings, clasps, and the rest, cost over eighteen gulden.”

In sixteenth century England, Queen Elizabeth I decreed that only persons of certain rank and income could wear silk, satin, and velvet. The law also regulated the size of neck ruffs, lace, and other ornaments.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Scandinavian countries regulated clothing by social class. A regulation from 1722 regulates buttons to “moderate” size, and a 1735 law specified the maximum size for buttons on vests as well as the number of buttons that could be used to embellish coat pockets. 
The United States did not escape sumptuary laws either. The Puritans enacted a sumptuary code that forbade men and women of “mean condition” from wearing certain items and embellishments. For instance, writes Baldwin, in Elizabethan England, sumptuary laws regarding the clothing of yeoman and handicraftsmen stated they:

… shall not take nor wear cloth of an higher price for their vesture or hosing, than within forty shillings the whole cloth, that they shall neither buy such cloth, nor acquire it in any other manner. They are elso forbidden to wear precious stones, cloth of silver, silk, girdles, knives, buttons, rings, brooches, chains, etc. of gold or silver, and embroidered or silken clothing. This prohibition is extended to their wives and children, who are also directed not to wear any veil or kerchief made of silk, "but only of yarn thread made within the realm," nor any fur nor budge, except lamb, coney, cat and fox.

Violation of sumptuary laws resulted in harsh fines, loss of property, title, and even execution. From ancient times to the eighteenth century, sumptuary laws preserved a rigid social structure in which everyone knew his or her place and discouraged ambition to rise above one’s station in life.

Karen M. Smith

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