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Archive for the ‘Clothes’ Category

For a few years I have been collecting images of beautiful hand-crafted 18th century buttons on my Pinterest board: Buttons, Georgian Style. The buttons, as you can see from the collection, are tiny works of art. Some feature scenes or portraits, others are embroidered or worked metal.

Buttons from the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Buttons from the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Button with shank

Button with shank

The history of buttons is fascinating. The earliest discovered button was made 5,000 years ago from a curved shell. It served a decorative function and fit into a loop, such as for a heavy robe or flowing garments. By the middle ages, the wealthy began to wear buttons that helped to fit their clothes more tightly around the body. Unlike today’s buttons, many of which are punctured with holes, most buttons back then were made with shanks, which gave button-makers leeway to decorate button faces with artistry and imagination.

Buttons for men's coats

Buttons for men’s coats

The first button-makers guild was formed in France in 1250. Only the very wealthy – kings and nobility – could wear buttons then. They were such a valuable commodity that one could pay off a debt with a single button. Ladies could detach their sleeves with laces or bows or buttons. These sleeves could be washed separately from their garments, exchanged with other outfits, or even given to a lover as a token. During the Renaissance, luxurious buttons indicated social status. King Francis I ordered buttons from his jeweler; Henry VII met his future wife, Anne of Cleves, wearing bejeweled buttons.

more buttons

As an aside, ladies wore their buttons on the left to make it easier for their maids to dress them. Men usually dressed themselves and thus their buttons were placed on the right. Button decoration, of course, changed with the taste of the time, from the renaissance to the baroque, to rococo, and neoclassic. By the mid-18th century, the more prosperous middle class merchants advertised their new status wearing elaborate and expensive buttons.

Steel Buttons

In a period when ladies were piling towers of greased and powdered hair on their heads, men were adorning themselves with immense cut steel buttons and shoe buckles. One exquisite thus decorated gives a lady a Coup de Bouton which has the same effect as a mild sunstroke Plate XXVI, Social Caricature in the Eighteenth Century, George Paston, 1902, Google eBook

The variety of buttons made in the 18th century was staggering. They were crafted with ceramics, enamel, fabric, metal, repoussé or hammered metal, horn, bone, tortoise, gemstone, glass, ivory, papier mache, wood, iridescent white oyster, conch,  and materials under glass, such as fabric paint, feathers, paper collage or decoupage, etc. Dandies in the Georgian era resembled colorful peacocks, dazzling onlookers, as the caricature above points out. Beau Brummel’s influence on male fashion subdued such bright fripperies.

buttons met museum2

Buttons also took on many forms, like those that were hollowed-out for smugglers to carry contraband for transporting jewels .The poor fashioned their own buttons from bone, horns, shell, or wood. Dorset buttons, which resembled tiny wheels, were made by binding linen yarn or cheap woolen yarn over a disc.

dorset_button

Dorset button image from the Dorset Guide. Dorset Guide.

There was quite a cottage industry for Dorset buttons at this time. Work was scarce in that region in the mid-18th century, but there were some women who made buttons from home. This was a primary industry in Dorset for over a century. Women workers, often the sole breadwinners of the family, averaged 2 shillings a day for making 6 or 7 dozen buttons, which provided more preferable conditions for making money than laboring on a farm. Tracey Chevalier wrote a novel, Burning Bright, which was about Philip Astley and his amphitheatre. In it she featured a girl from Dorset who made buttons for a living – fascinating.

Interestingly, these beautiful buttons on my Pinterest page were worn by males. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that women’s clothes began to feature buttons again. During the Georgian and Regency periods women’s clothes were pulled together and kept in place by laces, pins, sashes, and bows.

Links:

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Estimating lace and muslin: dress and fashion in Jane Austen and her world, by Jeffrey A. Nigro is a fabulous article about fashion in Jane’s day. This conference paper was published in Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal in 2001. Some of Mr. Nigro’s observations include:

Convenience was another reason for the increasing simplicity in dress beginning in the 1780s. Dry cleaning was not invented until the middle of the nineteenth century, and did not become commonplace until the twentieth. In Austen’s time, a silk dress that got dirty was essentially ruined. The fabrics that started to become fashionable from the 1780s onward (muslin and other cotton fabrics, linen, lawn) were much easier to care for, which was part of their appeal. Nevertheless, given the absence of modern appliances, the care and maintenance of clothing still meant much work for the servants in upper- and middle-class households.

Outerwear garments included the spencer, a long-sleeved jacket that extended only to the raised waistline. Worn by both men and women, it was named for the 2nd Earl Spencer, who, according to one version of the story, cut off the coattails of his jacket after wagering that he could invent a new fashion. For colder weather, there was the pelisse, a skirt-length overcoat, often lined and trimmed with fur, which originated in Hungary as a part of military dress. Bonnets became fashionable, essentially smaller versions of the straw hats of the 1780s, but now pulled in to frame the face. Bonnets, like shawls, would become staples of feminine dress until at least the middle of the nineteenth century.

Click here for more links about fashion:

* Jane Austen Pellise coat

* A Quilted Regency Spencer Jacket

* The Spencer Jacket

* The Importance of Wearing White, Jane Austen Centre Magazine

* Kyoto Costume Institute

* Bonnets, Caps, Turbans, and Hats

Images:

Muslin dress, Vintage Textile (top)
Jane Austen’s Pellisse Coat (middle)
Kyoto Costume Institute, Spencer Jacket (bottom)

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    In “To Cut a Regency Coat”, Suzi Clarke, a British costumer, goes into great detail on how to make this man’s Regency garment.

    The basic man’s coat for the first twenty-five years of the 19th century changed very little. It was cut to fit very firmly across the shoulders, with a shoulder seam that sloped into the back armscye. There was a center back seam, and the side seams curved toward the center back from the same armscye, narrowing in towards the waist. The center back continued on into the skirt, although occasionally there was a waist seam. The two front skirts were cut in one piece with the body, usually with a “fish” or dart at waist level early in the century.

    All these coats were beautifully cut and sewn together, the stitching being very neat and small. English tailoring at this time was the envy of the fashionable world, and these coats were of the time of the famous George “Beau” Brummell. The top coat belonged to a banker, Mr. Coutts, and was made by the famous tailor, “Weston” of Savile Row, mentioned in Georgette Heyer, and possibly Jane Austen. It was lodged at Coutts Bank, together with other items of clothing, in 1805, and donated to the Museum of London many years later.

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    Progress of the Toilet, a series of engravings created in 1810 by James Gillray, a renowned and prolific British caricaturist, show three illustrations that depict a young lady being dressed by her maid. The details in these prints from an extensive print collection at the Yale University Library are striking and informative.

    In the first plate, The Stays, Gillray depicts a young lady in her undergarments and wearing a cap, stockings, and slippers. On the floor sit a bowl and pitcher with water. Toiletries, pins, and jewelry are scattered on top of her dressing table. She inserts a busk between her breasts as her maid tightens her stays. Find a more detailed explanation about regency undergarments and regency fashions by clicking on the bolded words.


    Elaborate powdered wigs of the previous century gave way to simpler hair styles, some cut quite short. In the illustration entitled The Wig, the maid prepares to place a short curly wig on her mistress’ head. Note that the mirror is now full length and that the side table looks different. Our young lady sits in a simple muslin day gown, with neck and arms covered, reading a book as her maid prepares her. A bonnet and an open robe or pelise (on chair) will complete her toilette. Find more regency hairstyles on this site.

    In the third engraving, Dress Completed, we observe our young lady dressed for the evening and putting on evening gloves, which, typical of the day, are loose at the top. Her maid holds a shawl and fan, and her reticule hangs on a hook on the wall. The side table is no longer visible; her fashion plate book/magazine lies discarded on the floor. Our young lady’s slippers probably looked like this pair below. For a comprehensive view of footwear during this era, click here.

    In The Mirror of Graces, 1811, a Lady of Distinction write, “Perhaps it is necessary to remind my readers that custom regulates the veiling or unveling the figure, according to different periods in the day. In the morning the arms and bosom must be completely covered to the throat and wrists. From the dinner-hour to the termination of the day, the arms, to a graceful height above the elbow, may be bare; and the neck and shoulders unveiled as far as delicacy will allow.”

    Find regency clothing for sale on this site and a regency timeline in fashion here.

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