My mom used to sew. As most women who grew up during World War II and through the 50’s, sewing was how many women filled their closets. My mom was good. In fact, she was very good at sewing and would have me point out things I liked in catalogs as I was growing up, and then she would make the pattern for an outfit that was much like what I saw in those catalogs. Then we would shop for fabric. This was where my mom would enter nirvana. She bought fabric like a squirrel hunted nuts. And she would buy yards of whatever caught her eye – she knew if she’d like a blouse out of one fabric, she’d need approximately 1-3/4 yards, or a coat out of another fabric with a larger pattern she’d need approximately 3-1/4 yards. She would take special trips to Chicago and Minneapolis to go fabric shopping, and she would buy fabrics from the mail-order swatches that came every month from her fabric “club”, and sometimes, she would even shop for fabric from the local fabric store – but that was where everyone shopped, so it was only frequented as a last resort when there was NOTHING else available. So when she was ready to make the outfit that she had designed from the catalog picture, we shopped for fabric in her sewing closet, and we shopped for fabric in the steamer trunks she kept, and we shopped for fabric in the boxes stored under the bed or in the basement or in other closets and corners of the house. We called the fabric “mom’s addiction” and it was sort of a family joke. Of course we knew better than to tease her too much, because we knew we’d need that supply source once an outfit was spotted and coveted for the upcoming school season or for a special occasion.
As I got older and as mom stopped sewing quite as much as she used to, more store-bought clothes started filling my closet. One day one of the buttons to the cuff on my shirt needed replacing, and of course I went to mom looking for a replacement. She carefully eyed the rest of the buttons on the shirt and went off to her sewing corner in her bedroom. Carefully tucked under her shelves of bobbins and thread and needles and thimbles were shoe boxes and cigar boxes and plastic bins – all full of buttons. Mom went right to the box she needed to get me a small white shirt button – but I couldn’t believe what I saw; it was like she was hiding a whole jewelry store right under our noses and I had no idea all of these beautiful objects existed right here within arm’s reach of me! We all knew about the fabric, but had no idea that she had also gathered such a gorgeous and varied collection of buttons over the years too.
There were wood buttons and glass buttons, beaded buttons and buttons made from whalebone. There were ceramic buttons, metal buttons with insignias and crests on them, fabric buttons, leather buttons, large, medium, small and tiny buttons. I couldn’t help myself – I took the boxes of buttons and emptied them all out on the bed; I ran my hands through them all and picked up the shiny ones and the unusually shaped ones – “where did you get this?” and “what was this from?” and “do you have more of these?” came pouring out of me as mom realized that while she might be a junkie for the textile, her daughter was a junkie for the bling.
It is said that “clothes make the man” and this might well be true, but I think that the buttons make the memory. This dress is a simple black dress that could have been worn to any event – and as a dress it is lovely. But then, it was loved. It was made better and much more unique and memorable by bringing in the embellishment and style of buttons. Now the dress has meaning. It has meaning for the person who wore it and for the people who saw it when it took to the dance floor. The memory of the colors and the sounds of the buttons hitting each other as the dress would swing around. The “ooohs” and “aaahhhs” of people at the event are all carried in each beautiful button.
Cecil Cowell knew the power of buttons too, and donated her decorated coat to the Museum in 1977. It is a coat, but more than that – it’s a work of art. And the memory of winning top honors as the favorite object from the Museum’s Collections manager, Marilyn Merdzinski is in every button that was put in place on that coat.
The power and beauty of the button … never to be underestimated!
Lee Davis is an interior designer who lives in Grand Rapids, and who still keeps some of her mom’s button collection together in a few favorite containers in her own closets at home.