Lead book review

In grandmother’s treasure-chest

Lynn Knight extracts a rich history of birth, marriage, mourning — and top-to-toe glamour— from a box of Victorian buttons

13 February 2016

9:00 AM

13 February 2016

9:00 AM

The Button Box: Lifting the Lid on Women’s Lives Lynn Knight

Chatto, pp.308, £15.99, ISBN: 9780701188917

How could you possibly justify a whole book about buttons? How could the mention of a humble wooden toggle, a diamond clasp, a ‘blue side buckle’ inspire such an unusual and irresistibly delightful account of more than a century’s worth of women’s lives? You might wonder. But as Lynn Knight sorts her way through her Victorian grandmother Annie’s old treasures, a rich hoard of buttons of infinite shapes, sizes and textures, all packed into an old sweet tin, the smell of the lemon-scented geranium in Annie’s house comes hurtling through the door of her mind and returns her with a technicolour clatter to childhood. This is a book to make you smile, a story luminous with nostalgia.

Knight discovers that the handling of a button, the sight of a button, the sound of the rattle of a button, revives whole landscapes of memory. A button, as she demonstrates, is capable of transforming the simplest of garments. Visually and stylistically a button can be the making of an outfit, my own dreary, dark-as-the-night navy coat made gorgeous by three buttons covered in violet-coloured velvet, a cardigan without buttons feeling like a face without features. As reminiscences of ‘the shiver of silk’ and ‘the shock of that red chiffon’ return to Knight, she explores the wider significance of the button, and its quiet part in contributing to women’s understanding of their ‘security, identity and independence’.

Knight had the good fortune to inherit Annie’s precious tin and its contents, the buttons indivisibly associated with the garments to which they were once attached, allowing her to uncover stories about women both in her family and unknown to her. She devotes one chronological chapter to the role that each of some two dozen different buttons — plus the odd rogue thimble, velvet flower, and even a doll’s house doorknob that found its way into the tin — has occupied over the past century.

Under Knight’s affectionate scrutiny, each of these tiny objects assumes its own idiosyncratic distinction: mackintosh buttons for sporty practicality; apron buttons for domesticity; the show-stopper diamond clasp for glamour and classiness; the mischievous Edwardian ‘blackcurrant’ button, ‘twinkling, iridescent’ and reminiscent of a fruit gum; the fiddly, elegant, suffrage-political shoe buttons that required a hook to do them up; the ladylike buttoned-up glove; the hardworking buttons that closed the wide openings of 1940s Women’s Land Army breeches. The ubiquitous, robust linen buttons ‘stretched across stiff metal with holes stamped in them for thread’ are the most modest, sewn by the wives of the 1930s on to thousands of working men’s shirts.

The jet button, a symbol of mourning, was once the saddest of all. A century and a half ago, when grief was ‘a thriving business’, jet was ubiquitous, ‘scattered across fabrics and dripping from bosoms and shawls’. The button was named after the polished fossilised wood from Yorkshire from which it was carved. British button-making, a thriving industry since the 17th century, was the leading employer in Birmingham in the 1770s, and a century later the Whitby jet factory alone employed one-and-a-half thousand men.

But if death and mourning were once traditionally observed by the shape and colour of buttons, these diminutive objects have occupied an equally important position at the beginning of life. One of the most moving chapters is devoted to ‘The Baby’s Button’ and concerns a tradition that accompanied adoption in the 18th century. A mother giving up her illegitimate child would be asked to leave an identifying token — perhaps a button belonging to the child’s soldier father — just in case she should change her mind (a decision that could bring distress to all concerned until the Adoption Act of 1927) and ask for the return of the child at a later date.

Dress by Harvey Berlin in Vogue, 1956
Dress by Harvey Berlin in Vogue, 1956

One of the pleasures of this delicious gem of a book is the personal story of Knight’s maternal antecedents. A particularly beautiful cream smocked baby’s dress, with ‘two white flowers that decorate the bodice, each petal a single stroke of embroidery silk’, was made by Annie in 1930. It was worn for a special photograph of Knight’s mother and reflects the other side of the story. In a passage written with tenderness equal to the care with which commitment, love and good fortune were sewn into that little dress, Knight describes how of all the clothes Annie saved, this dress, with its three pearl buttons ‘defined by their milky sheen’, was the most precious. This was the dress in which Annie brought her adopted daughter home for the first time.

As well as inheriting the Quality Street tin, Knight also found herself the teenage beneficiary of her grandmother’s, her great aunt Eva’s and her mother’s most beautiful clothes. Annie and Eva were not only dressmakers but also hoarders of the spoils of their passion for fashion. Knight rummages through this enviably capacious and historically revealing dressing-up box, immersing herself in the lovely, often lost language of fabric, of sewing, of stuff. As she unpacks the treasures of the trunks, uncovering ‘floor-length ribboned nightgowns with lacework bodices, a black silk dress buttoned with tiny glass flowers, a shimmering art-deco scarf’, she celebrates clothes, rejoicing in garments that are dainty, infinitely delicate and unequivocally feminine.

Digging deeper into the historical layers of her grandmother’s box, Knight stitches in the story of the progress, as well as the restrictions, of women’s roles at home and at work during the last century. Cultural, political and feminist history is loosely, but justifiably, tacked on to the buttons that fastened 20th-century clothes. An aeroplane flown by Amy Johnson dressed by Schiaparelli, department stores, movies, literature, dancing, uniforms, snobbery, rationing, and the exacting pressure of employment versus motherhood all play their part in the narrative. In the 1880s North London Collegiate School, a rare place of education catering for intelligent young women, stipulated that it was ‘a rule of the school that no girl should enter who couldn’t make a buttonhole’.

After the first world war, as more and more women began to work outside the home in increasingly responsible positions, clothes really mattered. Miss Modern magazine reminded its readers that ‘appearances reveal more than they hide’ and that ‘a lost button may mean a lost job’.

The question of being taken seriously while still dressing in an appropriate and fashionable manner exercised writers such as Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, who were reluctant to compromise their self-respect, but at the same time did not want to risk accusations of frivolity. As Knight explains, a professional woman in the 1920s wondered if she must ‘disdain fashion and sacrifice style as a badge of her intelligence’. A housebound woman of the 1930s, denied any reliable contraceptives and already blessed with a sufficient quota of children, used needlework as a night-time delaying tactic. Informing her husband that she would join him in the bedroom shortly, she hoped that ‘by the time she had finished sewing, he would have fallen asleep’.

As Knight approaches her own experience, the book becomes lyrical with memory. Nostalgia is quickly evoked for a mother who may have had ‘two children before she had a fridge’ but saved enough of her wages to buy ‘coats with their broad hug-me shapes of all-enveloping wool’ (returning me to the image of my own mother arriving at the school gates in the 1960s in a coat fastened by buttons the size of crumpets). Here are reminders of the ladybird button, of a favourite homemade dress — ‘an abstract blend of grey and fuchsia’ — and of the fashion fads of the 1970s, including paper knickers, tie-dyed T-shirts — ‘a haze of bruised colour’ — smocks, crochet dresses, ponchos and crushed velvet flares.

And in a wonderful chapter entitled ‘Suspenders: Corsetry, Scanties (& Sex)’ Knight takes us on a comprehensive history of underwear, from the button-like
suspender that tethered the top of the stocking in place, to the bra, ‘a positive rite of passage, a proud symbol of womanhood’.

This is a book in which a woman’s life can be measured out not in spoons but in buttons, a storyline that — despite the fearsome challenge of the ‘zip fastener’ — not only survives but flourishes.

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Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.99 Tel: 08430 600033. Juliet Nicolson’s family memoir, A House Full of Daughters, will be published next month.

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