A Short History of Buttons, Elastic & Zips, by Kay Inverarity © 2008.

Buttons became fashionable in Europe in the mid.1300s the concept was brought back from the east by crusaders. At this time cloth buttons were generally used, these were made by cutting a fabric circle and sewing a draw thread around the perimeter, this was then drawn up tightly trapping the raw edges on the inside so that a padded button was formed. Cast metal buttons with shanks were also available but these were expensive. Throughout the ages many different materials have been used including wood, bone, horn, glass, metal, thread & shell. By the mid-Victorian period buttons were mass-produced this encouraged the late 19th century fashion for bodices that closed with numerous tiny buttons. These are often exquisitely detailed, and were known as "Austrian Smalls".  In the early 19th century thread buttons known as Dorset buttons, were generally used on any garment that was regularly washed, eg. men's shirts, these buttons were made from linen thread that was wound over a metal ring. With the spread of industrialisation in the mid 19th century the use of cottage made Dorset buttons decreased in favour of the manufactured flat linen covered button, these were generally used on undergarments. It was very important to use flat durable buttons on items that were regularly laundered. This was because the common way of getting excess water out of clothes was for them to be passed through a mangle, the mangle would break or damage buttons if they were fragile (eg. shell) or were not laid flat when passed through. Cream coloured shell buttons were used on outer garments from the early 1800s but darker shell was not generally used until the 1850s these buttons were commonly made in Birmingham England from shell exported from Western Australia, and the pacific. I suspect that the availability of dark shell in these areas was because it was a by-product of the pearling industry. In the 19th century an impressive variety of decorative buttons were available for use on garments that were not regularly laundered.  By the end of the century all of the varieties of buttons known to us today were available with one exception, they were made from natural materials NOT PLASTIC. Casein the first in the long line of materials that we would recognise as plastic, was developed in 1903 and Bakelite in 1908.  

Elastic was first recognised as a promising technological development in the 1820s; at this time it was made from fabric and natural rubber and was not durable. In 1839 Charles Goodyear discovered the process of vulcanisation, this improved the durability and elasticity of the rubber, he patented this process in 1844. In the 1850s elastic was being used in footwear for elastic sided boots. By the 1890s elastic was used for many things such as corsetry, for decorative belts, to hold the fullness in place in the back of skirts and for garters. Due to its unreliable reputation elastic was not generally used in vital areas such as waistbands, until after 1900. In my collection items start to appear with elastic waistbands around 1920. WHEN IN DOUBT DO NOT USE ELASTIC.

Zips were in their prototype stage in the 1920s and even though they were used on American airmen’s clothing in “World War One” they were considered too unreliable to use on dresses. Charles James and Elsa Shiaparelli both designed dresses featuring zips in the early 1930s, after this they became accepted for use on women’s dresses. In the early years, zips were made from metal, commonly brass, and were quite chunky, because of this they were often hidden under a flap in the side or back seam of the garment. These flaps routinely had hooks and bars attached to provide support for the zip and the safety of an extra closure should the zip fail. Plastic zippers were introduced in the late 1940s but these early zips were prone to jamming and breakage. In the 1950s zips were still considered too unreliable to use on gentlemen’s trousers, buttons were still generally used to close the fly. Nylon Zippers were introduced in the 1960s these new zippers were light, less obtrusive and much more reliable. 






Fig.1. A selection of late 19th and early 20th century buttons.








Fig.2. These “Austrian smalls” range in size from 10mm down to 7mm.













Fig.3. An original late 1880s bodice, showing “Austrian small” buttons in use. Note
           how a number of buttons are missing. This is a common problem as they were

           often re-used on other garments.







Fig. 4. A reproduction Dorset buttons on an 1820s reproduction gown. These thread  
           buttons ranged in size from 7mm to 12mm in diameter.








Fig.5. Flat linen buttons, these are still on their original card.









Fig.6. A very pretty pair of late 19th century elasticised garters.











Fig.7. These metal zips are used in the side seam of two special occasion dresses. The
          one at the top is from the 1930s, and the lower one is from the 1950s, notice
          how chunky the 1930s zip is when compared with the 1950s sample.
















Batterberry Michael & Ariane,  MIRROR, MIRROR, A SOCIAL HISTORY OF FASHION, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1977.

Peacock Primrose, DISCOVERING OLD BUTTONS, Shire Publications Ltd. London 1978.

Tarrant Naomi, THE DEVELOPMENT OF COSTUME, Routledge, London & New York, 1994.

Yarwood Doreen, THE WORLD ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF COSTUME, Bonanza Books, New York, 1986.

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