A few years ago I wrote the text below and published it on a different blog. Although the blog is no more, the collection the article speaks about is still at the Manchester Art Gallery, so, if interested, you are most welcome to send them any inquiries.
Back in 2004 Manchester Art Gallery has bought the “button world” from the dedicated collectors, Gillian and Alan Meredith. The collection has since gone on display, but somewhat surprisingly is aimed primarily at children.
Whilst not disputing the fact that children enjoy buttons for all good reasons, the adults – especially fashionistas – enjoy them too, and there is no reason why they should not flock to the exhibition. Featuring diverse and sundry buttons, some of which date back to 1750s, the displays contain much to tickle one’s style buds. Or to make one wonder at certain things.
For instance, there you can see the display with ladies’ gloves. The white ones are for the day, and the dark embroidered pair is for the evening. Lovely gloves, but how tiny! The leather is so thin that it is hard to believe the material: you could easily imagine that you are looking at a cardon-board copy. Even less fathomable is how people’s proportions have changed since the 19th c. Of course, today’s ladies’ hands are elegant and delicate in their own way, but if elegance is to be judged by a size, then modern female hands are nowhere near their 19th c. “predecessors”. In addition, the very look at those tiny gloves might see you reconsidering the entire “zero size” problem we often discuss today.
Two other gems of the display are a pair of Victorian children boots (very small again), and a few sets of Dorset buttons. If you are concerned about the children labour being used today to produce clothes and accessories, have a good look at the Dorset buttons (1800-1830). These were made by women and children from villages around Dorset and were hugely popular all over Europe. At the start of the 19th c. it was the hit of fashion to adorn white cotton muslin dresses with these buttons, but you are not mistaken in thinking that the buttons are just too delicate. They really are, and, as a proficient user of knitting needles and crochet, I know how much strain this sort of work causes to the eyes.
There are many more amazing buttons to be seen: the “Long Live the King” buttons that celebrated the recovery of King George III from his long illness; the buttons featuring characters from Charles Dickens’s novels; the Guinness buttons (1950-1960); and the Rothschild family buttons (1885-1900). The buttons are not exclusively English: there is a set of five Fornasetti buttons made in Milan in 1922. The set is titled Life’s Pleasures (i.e. Love, Pride, Luck, Success, and Money) and is made of porcelain.
Many more buttons are assembled in individual displays by type, and there are wooden, diamanté, plastic, brass buttons of all shapes and sizes. Not only that, there are also some really exciting designs, like the pooch or flower buttons.
Thanks to the Merediths, Manchester Art Gallery has unbuttoned a superb history of one of the main fashion accessories. It would be a shame if the exhibition remained focused solely on children.