Sunday, June 17, 2012

Button, Button: A Tiny Example of Fashionable French Artistry, c.1775

Sunday, June 17, 2012
Isabella/Susan* reporting:

One of the things I admire most about 18th c fashion is the incredible attention to the details. In an era when every cut and stitch was done by hand (and when even highly skilled labor cost less than the raw materials), the level of craftsmanship to be found in the embroidery on a wealthy gentleman's coat pocket or even in the meticulous stitches outlining the bones of a lady's stays (corset) has seldom been equaled.

I came across this button, left, while browsing through the excellent site of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Because there's very little written about the button on the site, I'm guessing that it must have been part of a set of buttons at one time, leaving it now as the lone survivor after nearly 250 years. This photograph is very much enlarged (and you can click on the image to enlarge it further); compared with other buttons of the time, this one is probably less than an inch in diameter at most, or roughly the size of a modern penny - and again I'm guessing, since the site doesn't give a measurement. Most likely it appeared on a gentleman's waistcoat or coat.

The button shows a girl playing a French hurdy gurdy, a popular street instrument of the time, balanced across her knees. (Forget that hiccup-y old 1960s song by Donovan; here is a YouTube video featuring a  traditional hurdy gurdy, and it's really a lovely, evocative sound.) It's possible the rest of the buttons on the garment showed other girls playing other kinds of instruments, since unmatched buttons with similar themes were popular in the late 18th c., such as this set or this one.

The girl, the hurdy gurdy, and the setting are carved from a single disk of ivory. A glass or clear crystal covers the carving and protects it, and everything is encased within a metal ring. Most astonishing to me are the blue stripes in the background. Each stripe is a pierced cut into the ivory, permitting the blue metallic backing to show through and give color and liveliness to the button. I can't begin to imagine the skill and patience necessary to execute that kind of virtuoso carving – and all for the sake of a single button!

Above: Button, French, c 1775, from the Hanna S. Kohn Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photography courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

*Why the double name? Yes, I'm a Gemini (so is Loretta), but this is the real reason.


Shelley Munro said...

This is very cool. I can't imagine sitting hunched over a gown or a waistcoat and hand stitching everything. It takes me ages to hem things if I do it by hand!

Anonymous said...

I wonder, how many hours did it take to create just this one button? Or maybe the craftsman was so skilled and used to paying such close, meticulous attention to detail that he (she?) could produce them very quickly. Absolutely lovely, however long it took.


Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Shelley, I know what you mean about hemming - never fun! However, I've seen professional seamstresses and tailors sewing by hand, and their needles really fly. For them, it's not drudgery, but creation. Still, I'm sure there were plenty of lesser-skilled 18th c seamstresses who would have loved to have had a modern sewing machine. :)

Kathy, I have no idea how long it would have taken to make a single button like this. It's also possible that it's the work of several craftspeople - one to do the carving, one to make the crystal, one to assemble the pieces - since "specialization" was already popular in a large 18th c city like Paris. But again, I really don't know for sure - wish I did!

Anonymous said...

I should suppose that they got paid very well for this stuff. But perhaps, not the actual artisans but the ones who actually did the marketing, and were financing them. Some things don't change!

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