In the 19th Century, women wore corsets cinched so tightly that they distorted their rib cages and forced their abdominal organs into their chests. It was certainly not comfortable or healthy, but it was the price many paid for stylish, wasp-like waists. “Whalebone” stays in the corsets contributed to the effect, but the stays were not bone, rather they were the same flexible connective tissue that constitutes our hair and nails. Known as baleen, whales use it to filter krill from gulped seawater. Before the advent of plastic, such items as corsets, collar stays, umbrella ribs, and buggy whips were made from baleen. The term boning still refers to the reinforcements in corsets and costumes that plastic strips or metal wires currently provide.
The mention of baleen, however, skirts the main subject, which is how bone, beginning in the 11th Century, helped revolutionize the fashion industry. Until then, clothing was loosely draped over the torso. Sadly, the healthy human form was all but invisible, and this was especially so among the upper class because extensive drapery denoted wealth. Yet it was a problem to keep these flowing garments from sliding off, a failure often memorialized by sculptors of classic beauties.
The foil was long bronze or bone pins that pierced the fabric and stabilized the folds. Buttons existed at the time but were only ornamental; and when they first became functional, they were secured through loops of cord passing along the edge of the garment. The reinforced button hole didn’t come along in the 13th Century.
Now garments could be form-fitting. The more buttons, the closer the fit. Sexy. Detachable sleeves, fixed with buttons, became the vogue. This allowed for mixing and matching wardrobe items, selective cleaning, and a readily accessible flag for waving at jousting tournaments.
Perhaps now wearing less fabric, the wealthy exhibited vast arrays of fancy buttons as status symbols, far beyond functional requirements. A debtor could restore his credit by handing over a fancy button from his jacket; and in Italian, a “room of the buttons” is still one where power brokers meet. The epitome of button excess is likely an outfit worn by the King of France in 1520: 13,600 buttons, each with its own button hole.
This lavish display of buttons was of course parroted by the lower classes, but their buttons were made of bone. Some were undoubtedly made at home, but industries sprung up. For the first time, bone became the raw material for a product that was mass produced and sold. French button makers formed a guild in 1250.
In Konstanz, Germany, 300,000 perforated bone strips have been recovered from a bone and bead-making industry that thrived there between the 13th and 16th Centuries.
As the Holy Roman Empire spread its influence during this time, the demand for rosaries increased, and even impoverished believers could afford rosary beads made of bone.
Even the wealthy had their economies. They fastened their undergarments with bone buttons and saved the glass and metal ones for all to see. Gentlemen generally fastened their own buttons. Because a lady’s garment might be almost entirely covered with buttons and their corresponding holes, the wearer had her aide or aides perform the manually demanding and time-consuming task of dressing and undressing her. It was at this time, when dressers faced female dressees, that buttons shifted sides on women’s clothing, which eased this task for predominantly right-handed dressers.
Time flies. The fashionistas, along with everyone else, die. Centuries pass. The clothes, fancy and plain, disintegrate. Yet the buttons survive. Recovered from archaeological sites, these humble discs are chronicles of bygone fashion and material culture. Nylon zippers and Velcro hook-loop fasteners, noisy as they are, may prove to be equally durable and equally valuable to historians, but humble bone buttons over a far longer period continue to quietly reflect human culture, past and present.