Every house should have its button box. I suspect one time every house did. Spare buttons were very much part of the mending culture, when recycling in the craft of use was not so much a principle of sustainability as a common sense practice. But their omnipresence in past domestic life is also the reason why they’re a good subject for commodity history.
In The Button Box the English historian Lynn Knight starts from her family’s button collection, passed down three generations, to tell the story of women in the 20th century. Buttons are peripheral things and yet they often outlast the garments they once adorned. Which means they can function as repositories of history – when given proper attention. Knight writes lively history through humble haberdashery.
Take Knight’s great-aunt Eva’s gauntlets for instance. Starting from the buttons, you can’t but admire the chocolate colour and the buttonholes, gusset and cuffs edged in caramel-coloured leather. In the early 1920s such gauntlets were associated with the well-off sporting woman’s wardrobe, well out of the reach of the working-class likes of Eva. But within a few years they were a popular choice for daywear, in particular when women dressed up to go shopping. Or, with one button reference, Knight enables us to feel the relief that the First World War was finally over and the special delight that consuming held then.
Through Eva’s one-bar buttoned post-war shoes, we also get to imagine the accompanying stockings that came in vivid colours – with colour becoming the shorthand of modernity. And with the colourful stockings also appeared the garter buttons decorated with the flapper’s stylized faces – an attractive, wide-eyed Betty Boop-like creature.
That these were indeed exciting, modern times, Knight further illustrates with reference to the so-called flapper vote. Following the partial enfranchisement ten years earlier of women aged 30 and over, if they had a household qualification, 1928 saw the extension of the franchise to women aged 21. But Dame Millicent Fawcett, founder member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, was not too pleased by the phrase: “Why call them flappers? Why call them girls?” The route to full emancipation of the admired “modern young woman” was still a long way off.
Knight takes us on an ingenious tour of domestic and social history over the last century or so. A jet button prompts thoughts over the elaborate rituals of mourning. A linen button, made to survive the mangle, brings into focus the working-class matrons who once patronized her great grandparents’ haberdashery shop. A Land Army button allows her to mention the Second World War – and so on. In sum, Knight lets buttons and by extension clothes speak as emblems of self-expression, social class and the attempts to escape it. This is fashion approached as a true cultural force and material history in the best of the storytelling tradition.
The boring black-and-white illustrations at the beginning of each chapter don’t do the wealth of stories in this book justice. It would be nice to see a fully illustrated version that shows the original buttons, the corresponding clothes and all the other objects Knight refers to. More information on the then domestic and working conditions of textile workers could inspire reflection on the human cost of fashion now. And what about a list that helps readers to date their own button collection?
I’m a crafter. I like objects and materials. I think they can speak to us, as the many recent commodity histories demonstrate. But I also like reflection. So, when humble buttons can exemplify the past, what can our relation with “stuff” more generally tell us about our lives now?
According to the cultural trend watcher James Wallman, consumerism no longer holds delight. People are actually suffering from stuff in a process that he’s baptized “stuffocation”. His starting observation is that, instead of feeling enriched by the things we own, we feel stifled by their accumulation. In the terms of this post: we may have lost our buttons – simply by having too many. Stuff clutters up our homes, it causes stress and it’s bad for the planet. Stuffocation then is the material equivalent of the obesity epidemic.
Put in such terms, the solution is simple: reduce your material possessions or at least the value you attach to them. Through true-life stories Wallman presents three radical solutions: minimalism, “the simple life” and “the medium chill”. In a nutshell, minimalists live with as few objects as possible, “simple lifers” take Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) as their lifestyle bible, and with the motto “take it easy”, the medium chiller turns away from material success to a slower, gentler and more human way of living.
The common characteristic of these alternatives is that they react to the dominant value system and measure achievement differently. Yet Wallman doesn’t think any of them will replace materialism. Few people know for instance that after only two years, Thoreau gave up voluntary simplicity and returned to the modern world, arguing that he had “several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one”. The point is not only that simple living is not very stimulating, it’s also all but simple to live without modern conveniences. The medium chill, according to the trend watcher, doesn’t feel aspirational enough and it does not provide people to indicate their status: that’s why it won’t appeal to most people. And the same goes for minimalism.
I’m intrigued by these stories, especially the minimalist obsession with numbers, as in: “I possess only 33 items”. I can’t get my head around this. When I look around me, just in the small space where I’m writing this, – no, I’m not even going to begin counting. Curiously, minimalists are very competitive: who can do with the least items? Part of the discussion then becomes what categories to use: are socks for instance to be counted separately, in pairs or as one single genre?
Wallman admits to 39 pairs of socks himself. More importantly, he addresses the issues material culture has come to define for most of us, such as identity, status and meaning. Returning for a moment to the clothes Lynn Knight describes through their buttons, the strength of her account is precisely that it identifies very clearly the relation between even humble objects and life-defining issues. Wallman also doesn’t condemn the relation: it’s simply what we’ve become accustomed to. His point is on the contrary that the issues are real: they’re deeply human needs and any alternative value system will need to satisfy them.
The trend watcher names experience as the next answer to our needs for identity and status. As the appeal of more stuff wanes, people are turning to experiences, like running a marathon, having a barbecue in the park or simply spending time with loved ones. This is not something you can have and hold: the 21th-century quest for the good life connects identity, meaning, status and happiness with something rather intangible that you do. And Wallman sees “experiental society” in practice today: experientalists take more holidays, go to increasingly popular festivals, spend more time (and money) on extravagant outdoor activities.
A great deal of the book is spent explaining how this urge for experience is compatible with the current economic system. Obviously not all businesses will survive. But as we’ve already seen the shift from goods to services, the system will now increasingly provide experiences. And to Wallman this is undeniably a good thing: the planet will suffer less, we will suffer less – and the human needs of identity and meaning will still be met. Everybody happy.
There’re a few shortcuts though. What the author describes very clearly is that the definition of the good life changes over time, relating to circumstances of scarcity or indeed abundance, to reflections about the state of our planet and so on. I take this to understand that there’s a lot of room to exercize our critical judgement – and act upon it. TINA-thoughts are not appropriate, this is a case for agency. But Wallman stays very much within the current frame.
Experience may indeed be the next big thing. But it’s not accidental that Wallman’s examples are almost exclusively outdoors – things to do rather than to be, with obvious consequences for consumerism, in terms of both materials and services to be provided to the experientalists. This then is still very much the framework of economic growth, or just another phase in the capitalist system.
Wallman claims some improvements, such as the fact that experiences are much more difficult to compare than, say, cars. That may be so but what if there is little or no intrinsic motivation to explore the Cambodian island of Koh Rong for instance, but only the desire to show off on social media? What if this is just a shift, away from the object but with the same aim: to distract us from important life issues?
It’s of course true that material accumulation for the sake of it offers very few people stable answers to their deeply felt needs. As mentioned earlier, the very feeling of being cheated out of satisfaction is indeed the driving force of the current economic and cultural system. And increasing numbers of people look for more meaningful lives. But does that mean we have to abandon the objects altogether – and turn uncritically to another promise of salvation and bliss? What if we haven’t lost our buttons at all, but simply paid them not enough attention?
In yet another Button Box the reader is encouraged to remember important people in her life, treasure her memories and in particular, tell stories. Debut author Janet Sever Hull has understood an important lesson: many people may need objects to connect with their inner needs and indeed, with other people. She invites the reader “to think of at least three things right off the top of your head which hold special memories for you and your family”. It may be the dinner table, or the family cookie jar, or indeed the button box, passed on from one generation to the next.
Obviously, it’s not necessarily the material value that makes an object special to us. As these button books show, it’s the stories they inspire that offer identity and meaning. The question then may become whether we allow objects to speak? Or are we too busy living our busy lives, suffering indeed from stuffocation, with no time to clear up, let alone tell or listen to the stories? Perhaps we should understand memories as some kind of experience too. But the stories evoked here require no conspicuous consumption. And the outdoors doesn’t feature either.
More generally, if we’re really looking to meet deeply human needs, I would claim it important to look indoors as well. To creative experiences, in crafts for instance. To the values of craftsmanship, such as attention, respect and patience. The intrinsic motivation to create. The inherently human desire to make – and to do it well. The effort to exercize our critical judgement and act upon it. The connection between head and hands. The kairos experience. And the value of stillness, the time creativity asks to be recognized and felt – or to let it bubble up from our deeply buried selves.
The Button Art Museum clearly hasn’t lost its buttons: its boards on Pinterest provide ample inspiration. The experience of beauty creates space to be. And I believe that above all the ability for stillness is required in order to define better our quest for the good life.