Although small in size, the priceless materials and skills involved in making these pieces dating from the 18th to the 20th century can make them fully-fledged objets d’art. Produced by artisans ranging from embroiderers, soft furnishers, glassmakers and ceramicists to jewellers and silversmiths, they crystallise the history and evolution of these skills. The button has also fascinated famous painters, sculptors and creators of jewellery, inspiring them to produce unique miniature creations for the great couture houses.

This collection, gathered by Loïc Allio, is exemplary in its variety, richness and eclecticism. Its exceptional pieces include a portrait of a woman in the Fragonard manner, a trio of buttons inspired by La Fontaine’s fables by the silversmith Lucien Falize, a set of eight birds painted on porcelain by Camille Naudot, and a series of 792 pieces by the sculptor Henri Hamm. The jewellers Jean Clément and François Hugo and the artists Jean Arp and Alberto Giacometti all produced pieces for the famous fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, as did Maurice de Vlaminck for the couturier Paul Poiret. Couture houses such as Dior, Balenciaga, Mme Grès, Givenchy, Balmain and Yves Saint Laurent enlisted the talents of the jewellers Francis Winter and Roger Jean-Pierre, and the exhibition also features creations by Sonia Delaunay and Line Vautrin.

Structured chronologically, the exhibition reveals the incredible history of the button, showing via this extraordinary collection how it perfectly reflects the creativity and humour of a period. Pictures, engravings, drawings and fashion photographs emphasize its importance on the garment and how crucial it is in creating the balance of a silhouette.

Since its appearance in the 13th century, the button has maintained its key role on the garment. Its production and use gradually developed but the golden age of the button in France did not come until the late 18th century, when it became a luxury item often more expensive than the garment itself. More than a mere ornament, it was also a means of conveying penchants and opinions, via humorous, intimate and even political messages (portraits of the royal family, scenes showing storming of the Bastille, etc.). However, not until around 1780 and the French craze for all things English, did the button appear in female fashion, on dresses and bodices with cuts inspired by male garments.

In the 19th-century male wardrobe the art of the button gave way to the art of buttoning. Now smaller and more discreet, the button came to denote the degree of refinement of a garment or level of distinction of its wearer. The attention paid to its positioning is particularly apparent on that most essential component of the male wardrobe, the waistcoat. With the industrial revolution in the second half of the 19th century button manufacturing developed into a full-scale industry mass-producing all sizes and colours of buttons for every type of garment and accessory.

Women’s buttons remained much more modest in size but their number increased. They now also appeared on ankle boots, gloves and eventually lingerie as the number of undergarments increased around 1850. Their number was precisely noted in fashion magazines and their description in contemporary literature established them as objects of coquetry and even seduction.

In parallel, silversmiths and jewellers created valuable buttons, sometimes presented in caskets like jewellery and reflecting the artistic movements of the period, especially Art Nouveau.

The first floor of the exhibition ends with the 1910s and the return of the so-called “Empire” line under the influence of the avant-garde-inspired couturier Paul Poiret, for whom the importance of a detail, for instance a button and its precise positioning, is dictated by a “secret geometry that is the key to aestheticism.”

François Hugo for Elsa Schiaparelli, circa 1940
Enamelled ceramic
© MAD, Paris / photo : Jean Tholance

The exhibition continues with the fashion of the 20s, featuring Art Deco buttons and the emergence of the paruriers, creators of accessories, jewellery and buttons, each with their own style and preference for different materials. Their close collaborations with the great couturiers are highlighted in a display featuring creations for Elsa Schiaparelli, Jean Clément and Jean Schlumberger. François Hugo’s designs for Schiaparelli include uncut stones set in bent and compressed metal. He also enlisted the talents of artists such as Pablo Picasso and Jean Arp for original creations.

The decline of the button began in the 80s as couturiers returned to more minimal creations in which the button regained its original use.

In counterpoint to creations by artists, the exhibition emphasizes the manner in which certain couturiers creatively used and interpreted the button in their own way, ranging from Gabrielle Chanel and Christian Dior to Cristobal Balenciaga and the “jewellery buttons” of Yves Saint Laurent. And of course there are also exquisite 21st-century examples, notably Jean Paul Gaultier’s trouser suit entirely covered with small mother-of-pearl buttons, and the coats by Céline subtly revisiting double-breasted buttoning.

Despite the emergence and increasing use of new types of fastenings such as the zip, the pressure button and velcro, the button is ever-present and still has many years to come.