Some objects exist in pairs. One thing requires another like a lock and a key, a plughole and a plug or a screw lid and a jar. Through the connection of one component with its matching opposite other, they temporarily become a whole and functional object. If separated, the function of at least one element becomes obsolete and while one might to use a jar without its lid, what is to become of a lock without its key? A similar functional pairing can be found in a buttonhole and a button, connecting one part of a garment with another; the ability to separate and connect. If a garment has a button but no buttonhole, the former becomes a pure aesthetic detail taken out of its original, purposeful context. In such a case the presence of a button no longer hints at the presence of its matching other and in reverse the presence of a buttonhole no longer suggests the necessity of a button.
One such example is the buttonhole on the left hand side of the lapel of a men’s formal jacket. Having its origin in the buttoned-up military coat, the lapel on contemporary and traditional men’s suit jacket sprung into being out of the habit of wearing one’s uniform half-opened, a style appropriated and made widely fashionable by the dandy godfather Beau Brummel in the first decades of the nineteenth century. With both sides of the top half of the jacket flapping to either side, the way a men’s coat folds, meant that the left side was showing the buttonhole, while the other covered the button. The style of wearing one’s jacket in such a manner soon meant that they were produced with a lapel intended to show the jacket’s previous inside. The covered button became obsolete and was removed but the buttonhole remained. Through the re-functioning of the buttonhole from its original purpose into an entirely new function, its purpose morphed into providing a place for securely holding a decorative flower on a men’s suit jacket. The stem of the flower could be thread through the hole to hide the stem on the underside of the lapel. Some tailors added another component to the buttonhole; the addition of a flower loop on the underside of the lapel to ensure the secure position of the flower. According to Eithen Sweet from Maurice Sedwell at No. 19 Savile Row some
Edwardian suit jackets saw a further, additional feature under the flower loop into which a miniature vase could be placed, thus ensuring that the flower stayed fresh throughout the entire course of a lengthy engagement. Two components, tightly related, have been separated. While one of them became obsolete, the other morphed into a new function.
Interestingly, on and outside of Savile Row, tailors weave their own interpretations into tales concerned with the original purpose of a small sartorial detail. Stories naturally vary and some uses have been forgotten entirely. While heritage is of the highest value, it has been adapted into a subjective and distinctive execution that is unique to each tailor’s design.
The ability to industrially mass-produce garments meant that suits became affordable for the wider population. Without the time-consuming and expensive measuring and re-measuring of a customer’s body, the total duration of producing a suit is reduced from around thirty-three working hours to just under an hour in the factory. Instead of purchasing a bespoke suit, which might take a tailor around two months and the customer several trips to the tailor’s shop, the ready-to-wear shopper can find a suit in one visit. Needless to say that both price and quality are abridged and the bespoke suit remains a covetable item, not least because of its perfect tailored fit. Because most bodies are not symmetrical and not one body is the same as another, the industrial production of suits means that body proportions are standardised and estimated according to a general mean. As a result, the so-called pitch of a suit — the natural and unique position of someone’s arm in relation to the torso and the translation of that into a jacket sleeve — is aligned to the individual and therefore ensures an accurate fit of a suit’s jacket. The near obsolete buttonhole — after all, in the rare event of wearing a decorative flower, it can be pinned to the lapel — ended up being sewn up, blinded and muted. The detail remains, if only to nod to tradition.
Similarly, while the possibility to open the cuffs of a suit jacket is not essential, ready-to-wear suits omitted the production of functioning buttons. Those in favour of high quality bespoke or made-to-measure suits have taken to leaving the first button on the cuff open, thus distinguishing themselves from consumers of fast fashion. Yet sartorial critic Francis Brown noted this habit of subtle display in public as ‘the height of vulgarity’ and an ‘abominable practice’. On some suits only two of the cuff buttons are working while the others are sham. Some ready-to-wear labels have caught on to this display of apparent expensive taste and now produce suit jackets with working cuff buttons.
When Bernard Rudofsky asked Are Clothes Modern in his 1947 anthropological critique of clothes, he illustrated the amount of buttons a man would typically wear from head to toe, from coat to underpants. With a total of seventy or more buttons ((Drawers: 2, trousers: 16, shirt: 8, vest: 6, coat: 17, overcoat: 19, gloves: 2; from Bernard Rudofsky, ‚Are Clothes Modern?: An essay on Contemporary Apparel’, p.120, (1947) Chicago: Paul Theobald)) — most of them useless — he suggests that formal dress is archaic.
Buttons are also vulnerable. They break, become lose, have their thread hanging off, drop to the ground, get lost, are replaced with an atonal surrogate or collected.
Fast fashion generously gives out a spare button with every item of clothing, as if to remind you or to trick you into believing that the button, as the most vulnerable detail of a garment, might have to be replaced at some point. I would argue that in most cases it is the spare button, somewhere forgotten in the back of one’s drawer, that outlives the garment.
* Apousiokoumpounophobia is the fear of the absence of buttons.
This text was written in response to a brief generated by students of the Critical Writing in Art & Design department at the Royal College of Art and then developed with Will Wiles. Each text explores an aspect of uselessness in art and design and they appear together in a forthcoming publication Useless, designed by Pedro Cid Proença and produced collaboratively by 2012′s graduating students.