Thank heaven for costume dramas.

They answer questions about clothing.

Have you ever wondered why the Amish and similar sects eschewed buttons? Does the Pope still wears velvet slippers? The answers might prove surprising.

Buttons

Prior to the 16th century, sleeve extensions were sewn on to shorter sleeves for extra warmth.

Gaby Wood, writing for The Telegraph, tells us that Wolf Hall is painstakingly faithful to authentic clothing conventions of Henry VIII’s time.

I’ve not been watching it but was intrigued to find out that, just as in his era, Wolf Hall‘s costumes have eyelets with aiglets — points, or fasteners — which allowed a servant to pin sleeve extensions to men’s and women’s attire. Using these holes and fasteners prevented the fabric from tearing.

Pins were used when thread was not. Not surprisingly, pins were easily lost.

This was all part of dressing in cooler weather. It gave us two saying which are still commonplace today:

point scoring: men gambled for aiglets.

pin money: money set aside for the purchase of pins.

Kirby Beard 1023KIRBYbisWhilst pins or aiglets did not break the bank, they did involve household expense. The pins were not terribly good, either. There was no mass mechanisation or uniformity of these items until the 19th century. Two Englishmen, Robert Kirby and George Beard, tried to perfect a pin-making machine developed by an American, Seth Hunt. It wasn’t until 1833 that Kirby Beard & Co. (see second half of post) began successful mass production of pins on a steam-driven apparatus capable of making pinheads directly from wire. The company moved from Gloucestershire to Birmingham. Their needle factory was in nearby Redditch. The picture on the left shows their patent. These pins were prized all over the world. Wives asked their husbands sailing overseas to bring them back Kirby Beard & Co. products. The company later produced luxury goods for the home with shops in the City of London and in central Paris. But I digress.

Back to pins in the 16th century. As well as the stars of the show, even the extras in Wolf Hall are attired in the authentic way with pins or stitching on their costumes.

Meanwhile, in Paris, a button exhibition is running until July 19, 2015, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

Véronique Belloir, the exhibition’s curator, told the French online news service l’Internaute that the button was created in the 16th century.

It was considered as much a decorative item as a functional one. (By way of illustration, the article has an accompanying photo of sculpted mother of pearl buttons from the 19th century.)

By the 17th century, wealthy Europeans spent so much money on buttons that various kings instituted laws which limited the number purchased and the ways in which these new fasteners could be used.

Belloir says that ordinary Europeans considered the button to be conspicuous consumption:

It was a luxurious object which shocked Christian morality.

By the end of the 18th century, buttons cost more than the clothing on which they were sewn. Buttons served as class and political indicators.

It is for this reason that the Amish and other religious sects refused to wear them.

In the 19th century, the button became commonplace. In order to be properly dressed, men and women ensured every button was done up.

I remember reading years ago that the more buttons one had on a suit jacket or a dress, the wealthier one was. Boots also had buttons. Every household had button hooks. Without them, getting dressed and undressed would have been impossible.

Even though we now have zippers, press studs (snaps) and Velcro, Belloir says that no fabric fastener in history has enhanced our attire as much as the button:

It implies a certain charm, a certain elegance.

Velvet slippers

Traditionally, a well-to-do Englishman wore velvet slippers with his smoking jacket (or, for more formal occasions, a dinner jacket).

Both items were properly strictly indoor, ‘at home’ attire. The smoking jacket served as a comfortable yet elegant item to wear for drinks and dinner. The slippers were a necessity in an era when streets were so muddy and dirty that boots and shoes had to be taken off once one walked in the door.

Although smoking jackets are still sold, velvet slippers have overtaken them in popularity, not only in England but also in the United States. The online world has any number of shops selling them.

Tatler (March 2015, pp. 90-92) has a feature on the velvet slipper, a précis of which can be found online.

The magazine tells us that thin men are best placed to wear velvet slippers. A trim ankle is de rigueur, just as trim legs are for skinny jeans. Today, the two go together (p. 92):

A clever man in jeans and a shirt and velvet slippers over supper at a house party making you think about the world slightly differently. That’s what we’re after.

So high-WASP*!

But WASPs are not the only men wearing them today. They are very popular with certain rappers and actors, such as Tinie Tempah and Kanye West (p. 91).

And a few shops now make them for women.

Historically, the velvet slipper was not an exclusively WASP footwear item. They have been popular with popes for ages. However, it was Paul VI who put an end to commissioning velvet and silk slippers in 1969 (p. 92). Paul VI requested plain red leather. Pope Francis prefers his in black leather.

A pair of velvet slippers normally costs a few hundred pounds or dollars. Because they are becoming more popular, this style of slipper is now made in other fabrics which can bring the price down accordingly. Less luxurious fabric also makes the slippers suitable for outdoor wear.

This short YouTube video shows the detailed handiwork which goes into making traditional velvet slippers for Herring Shoes in Norwich, England:

* White Anglo-Saxon Protestant

 

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