Buttons are most often attached to articles of clothing but can also be used on containers such as wallets and bags. However, buttons may be sewn onto garments and similar items exclusively for purposes of ornamentation. Buttons serving as fasteners work by slipping through a fabric or thread loop or by sliding through a buttonhole. Other types of fastenings include zippers, Velcro, and magnets.
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, in fact, 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 button holes, with the legionary Loculus (satchel) closed through the insertion of a metallic buckle, or button into a leather slit. A mechanism that would later feature on early medieval foot ware.
Functional buttons with buttonholes for fastening or closing clothes appeared first in Germany in the 13th century. They soon became widespread with the rise of snug-fitting garments in 13th- and 14th-century Europe.
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 drugsmugglers have attempted to hide and transport illegal substances. At least one modern smuggler has tried to use this method.
Three plastic sew-through buttons (left) and one shank, fabric-covered button (right)
Different examples of shirt studs
Plastic studs for bedclothes
Shank buttons have a hollow protrusion on the back through which thread is sewn to attach the button. Button shanks may be made from a separate piece of the same or a different substance as the button itself, and added to the back of the button, or be carved or moulded directly onto the back of the button, in which latter case the button is referred to by collectors as having a 'self-shank'.
Flat or sew-through buttons have holes through which thread is sewn to attach the button. Flat buttons may be attached by sewing machine rather than by hand, and may be used with heavy fabrics by working a thread shank to extend the height of the button above the fabric.
Stud buttons (also push-through buttons or just studs) are composed from an actual button, connected to a second, button-like element by a narrow metal or plastic bar. Pushed through two opposing holes within what is meant to be kept together, the actual button and its counterpart press it together, keeping it joined. Popular examples of such buttons are shirt studs and cufflinks.
Snap fasteners (also pressure buttons or press studs) are metal (usually brass) round discs pinched through the fabric. They are often found on clothing, in particular on denim pieces such as pants and jackets. They are more securely fastened to the material. As they rely on a metal rivet attached securely to the fabric, pressure buttons are difficult to remove without compromising the fabric's integrity. They are made of two couples: the male stud couple and the female stud couple. Each couple has one front (or top) and rear (or bottom) side (the fabric goes in the middle).
Covered buttons are fabric-covered forms with a separate back piece that secures the fabric over the knob.
Mandarin buttons or frogs are knobs made of intricately knotted strings. Mandarin buttons are a key element in Mandarin dress (Qi Pao and cheongsam in Chinese), where they are closed with loops. Pairs of mandarin buttons worn as cuff links are called silk knots.
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 lignes equal to 1 inch. For example, some standard sizes of buttons are 16 lignes (10.16 mm, standard button of men's shirts) and 32 lignes (20.32 mm, typical button on suit jackets).
The American National Button Society (NBS) has its own button sizing system which divides button sizes into 'small', 'medium' and 'large'.
In museums and galleries
Peter Carl Fabergé buttons in the Cleveland Museum of Art
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.
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.
Koumpounophobia, the fear of buttons, is a surprisingly common phobia. Sufferers frequently report being repulsed by the sight of buttons, even on other people, and being unable to wear clothing with them. Sufferers also report buttons being dirty and smelling. The phobia may bear some passing resemblance to trypophobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but is separate and distinct.