There’s more history in a button than you’d think. As a volunteer helping with the Australian Dress Register, I compiled information on the history of fastenings as a resources sheet for the Register’s website. In the process I uncovered some interesting facts about the different ways clothes have been held together and the histories of different forms of fastenings.
To find these details I used the books in the Powerhouse Museum’s research library. I also looked at web-based sources of information. However, I had to make sure any information I used from the internet was reliable. I looked at several different types of fastenings, including hooks and eyes, drawstrings and press studs. But the most interesting histories were those of the button and the zipper.
Though buttons and toggles were used for many hundreds of years, the buttonhole appeared in Europe around 1200, copied from the Turks and Mongols by returning crusaders. By the mid 14th century, buttons had become very popular. The button’s popularity spread across Europe, with monarchs adorning themselves with literally thousands of buttons. In the 16th century there was puritanical condemnation of buttons as sinful and the number of buttons used diminished a little. In response, button-makers made increasingly detailed and elaborate buttons. Buttons have been made from all sorts of different materials – shell, bone, metals and today plastic.
The modern zipper was invented in the United States in 1913. The name ‘zipper’ appeared in the US after the fastener was added to a pair of rubber boots and they were called the ‘Zipper Boot’ after the buzzing noise and speed of the closure. In the 1920s and 1930s, some clergy were opposed to zippers as they allowed one to take one’s clothes off too quickly!
During the 1930s, zippers began to appear on skirts and dresses and on trouser flies from 1935. Tailors disliked zipper flies and created the fly front, a fold of cloth to hide the zipper. In the late 1930s colourful nylon zippers became available and designer Elsa Schiaparelli championed the use of the zipper in couture, adding bold zippers as features of her designs from 1935.
In the 1960s the zipper again became the focus of fashion, with designers such as Emilio Pucci using them as a centre front feature on some of his youthful print dresses.
By World War II, metal zippers were widely used in Europe and North America. Following the war they spread to the rest of the world and ceased to be a novelty. Today, strong plastic is also used to make zippers.
The entries on the Australian Dress Register demonstrate how fastenings can be both functional and fashionable. For example, the Ladies Black Crepe de Chine Dress c.1930-1940 (ADR ID 234) from the Manning valley Historical Society has a very low neckline which is held together at the collar with a black and silver bakelite art deco brooch. The Dress Register entries give a sense of the great variety of clothes fastenings that have been used over time.
Written by Rosie Cullen