When, about twenty years ago, I first bought the house in France where I now live, a few bits of old furniture were still there, left behind when the last inhabitant died several years before. Nothing was of any value or beauty, everything was well past being useable and had to be thrown out. Everything that is apart from one thing, a little rickety oak table with a drawer in it - and in that drawer, buttons. Very utilitarian buttons, for these had been poor people, scraping a living from the land, a very simple life. But I've still got what we always called Mme Garnier's table -- it's now in the spare bedroom, with an old piece of linen as a cloth, acting as a sort of dressing table. And yes, the buttons are still there.
I've always loved buttons, and I'm sure many other people reading this will be able to share Lynn Knight's delight in her childhood memory of 'the rattle and whoosh of my grandma's buttons as they scattered from their Quality Street tin'. Buttons were used as play money, as counters in games, and as pretend sweets when playing shop. And, taking that as a starting point, she has written this truly lovely book, in which the various types of buttons in the box are woven (perhaps I should say sewn) into a narrative that encompasses not just her own life or even those of her mother, grandmother and great-aunt, but spreads a wide net that takes in the story of women's lives from the nineteenth century to the present day.
In a sense the structure of the book is pretty obvious. The buttons are taken from the box one by one, and each one forms the basis for a story. So we get, to give just a few of the 28 chapters, The Shoe Button, The Twinkling Button, The Blue Slide Button, The Small Drab Button, The Diamanté Clasp, The Toggle, The Pearl Button, and even Suspenders. The Shoe Button chapter is a representative example. It starts with the personal:
My great-aunt came of age in 1922. She wore dropped-waist frocks, long dangling beads and dashed about -- Eva never did anything slowly -- in the one-bar buttoned shoes of the time. The button box contains three pairs of tiny buttons which fastened shoes like hers. Of course where there were buttoned shoes, there were also buttonhooks; Eva's nestled in the little handbags she always carried and later passed on to me, and which also speak eloquently of that era.
The chapter opens up to look at women's fashions of the day, sometimes through the perspective of various women's written or recorded accounts of what they wore, or sold, at the time. This then takes us onto suffrage, as this was the era of the so-called 'flapper vote', the extension of the franchise in 1928 to women aged 21 and over; to women's new careers as working women and the possibilities open to them; and to the question of the right clothes to wear to work and the probable cost of buying them: a book called The Bachelor Girl's Guide to Everything advised that young women should allocate a portion of their income to clothes -- those earning 25s or less a week should spend £12 a year, rising to £15 or £20 if they earned between 27s and £3. In practice, Knight points out, few women could afford to spend a third of their income on clothes, and indeed 'some shop workers could barely afford to clothe themselves'. This then was the era of home dressmaking, with magazines offering cheap and simple patterns for girls to follow. Finally the chapter circles back on itself, looking at the fact that, with such difficult and often worrisome lives, women frequently sought pleasure and distraction on the dance floor. And here we are once again in the world of the buttoned shoe, plus a look at headdresses, skirt lengths, differing perception of the ideal female body, and the seemingly unalterable necessity of wearing a hat. The chapter ends with a quotation from the writer Winifred Holtby. Reflecting on the dreary cumbersomeness of most women's clothes at the time, she wrote:
We want clothes in which we can dress ourselves quickly and comfortably, and which we can wear all day without feeling awkward...And we want to feel that in them we appear as charming, as chic and more entitled to self-respect than the [leisured fashionable women] whose photographs today we admire so wistfully in the illustrated papers.
And that's just a summary of one chapter. Imagine all the delightful and informative material in there magnified over all twenty-eight, you'll surely see why I absolutely loved every minute of this gorgeous book. Autobiography, social history, costume, gender -- it's all in there. It's beautifully produced, with a lovely cover and endpapers studded with photos of highly desirable buttons of all periods, and it has all the endnotes you could ever need plus a full bibliography. If there's a non-fiction prize in the offing, I'd like to see this win. In any case, it's high on the list of the best books I've read this year. Wonderful stuff.