A button is a fastener that joins two pieces of fabric together by slipping through a loop or by sliding through a buttonhole.
In modern clothing and fashion design, buttons are commonly made of plastic but also may be made of metal, wood, or seashell. Buttons can also be used on containers such as wallets and bags. Buttons may be sewn onto garments and similar items exclusively for purposes of ornamentation. In the applied arts and craft, a button can be an example of folk art, studio craft, or even a miniature work of art. In archaeology, a button can be a significant artifact.
Koumpounophobia is the fear of buttons anecdotely linked to reports of smelly and dirty buttons.
Buttons and button-like objects used as ornaments or seals rather than fasteners have been discovered in the Indian-Pakistani Indus Valley civilization during its Kot Diji phase (c. 2800–2600 BC), at the Tomb of the Eagles, Scotland (2200-1800 BC), and at Bronze Age sites in China (c. 2000–1500 BC) and Ancient Rome.
Buttons made from seashell were used in the Indus Valley Civilization for ornamental purposes by 2000 BC. Some buttons were carved into geometric shapes and had holes pierced into them so that they could be attached to clothing with thread. Ian McNeil (1990) holds that "the button was originally used more as an ornament than as a fastening, the earliest known being found at Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley. It is made of a curved shell and about 5000 years old."
Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty left behind ornate wig covers, fabricated through sewing buttons formed of precious metals onto strips of backing material.
Leatherwork from the Roman Empire incorporates some of the first buttonholes, with the legionary Loculus (satchel) closed through the insertion of a metallic buckle, or button into a leather slit. A similar mechanism would later feature in early medieval footwear. Buttons appeared as a means to close cuffs in the Byzantine Empire and to fasten the necks of Egyptian tunics by no later than the 5th century AD.
Since at least the seventeenth century, when box-like metal buttons were constructed especially for the purpose, buttons have been one of the items in which drug smugglers have attempted to hide and transport illegal substances. At least one modern smuggler has tried to use this method.
Also making use of the storage possibilities of metal buttons, during the World Wars, British and U.S. military locket buttons were made, containing miniature working compasses.
Because buttons have been manufactured from almost every possible material, both natural and synthetic, and combinations of both, the history of the material composition of buttons reflects the timeline of materials technology.
Buttons can be individually crafted by artisans, craftspeople or artists from raw materials or found objects (for example fossils), or a combination of both. Alternatively, they can be the product of low-tech cottage industry or can be mass-produced in high-tech factories. Buttons made by artists are art objects, known to button collectors as "studio buttons" (or simply "studios", from studio craft).
In 1918, the US government made an extensive survey of the international button market, which listed buttons made of vegetable ivory, metal, glass, galalith, silk, linen, cotton-covered crochet, lead, snap fasteners, enamel, rubber, buckhorn, wood, horn, bone, leather, paper, pressed cardboard, mother-of-pearl, celluloid, porcelain, composition, tin, zinc, xylonite, stone, cloth-covered wooden forms, and papier-mâché. Vegetable ivory was said to be the most popular for suits and shirts, and papier-mâché far and away the commonest sort of shoe button.
Nowadays, hard plastic, seashell, metals, and wood are the most common materials used in button-making; the others tending to be used only in premium or antique apparel, or found in collections.
Over 60% of the world's button supply comes from Qiaotou, Yongjia County, China.
Historically, fashions in buttons have also reflected trends in applied aesthetics and the applied visual arts, with buttonmakers using techniques from jewellery making, ceramics, sculpture, painting, printmaking, metalworking, weaving and others. The following are just a few of the construction and decoration techniques that have been used in button-making:
The size of the button depends on its use. Shirt buttons are generally small, and spaced close together, whereas coat buttons are larger and spaced further apart. Buttons are commonly measured in lignes (also called lines and abbreviated L), with 40 lines equal to 1 inch. For example, some standard sizes of buttons are 16 lignes (10.16 mm, standard buttons of men's shirts) and 32 lignes (20.32 mm, typical button on suit jackets).
Some museums and art galleries hold culturally, historically, politically, and/or artistically significant buttons in their collections. The Victoria and Albert Museum has many buttons, particularly in its jewellery collection, as does the Smithsonian Institution.
Hammond Turner & Sons, a button-making company in Birmingham, hosts an online museum with an image gallery and historical button-related articles, including an 1852 article on button-making by Charles Dickens. In the US, large button collections are on public display at the Waterbury Button Museum of Waterbury, Connecticut, the Keep Homestead Museum of Monson, Massachusetts, which also hosts an extensive button archive, and in Gurnee, Illinois at The Button Room.
The mainly American tradition of politically significant clothing buttons appears to have begun with the first presidential inauguration of George Washington in 1789. Known to collectors as "Washington Inaugurals", they were made of copper, brass or Sheffield plate, in large sizes for coats and smaller sizes for breeches. Made in twenty-two patterns and hand-stamped, they are now extremely valuable cultural artifacts.
Between about 1840 and 1916, clothing buttons were used in American political campaigns, and still exist in collections today. Initially, these buttons were predominantly made of brass (though horn and rubber buttons with stamped or moulded designs also exist) and had loop shanks. Around 1860 the badge or pin-back style of construction, which replaced the shanks with long pins, probably for use on lapels and ties, began to appear.
One common practice that survived until recent times on campaign buttons and badges was to include the image of George Washington with that of the candidate in question.
Some of the most famous campaign buttons are those made for Abraham Lincoln. Memorial buttons commemorating Lincoln's inaugurations and other life events, including his birth and death, were also made, and are also considered highly collectible.