Thoughts about buttons

I was given a box of buttons by a friend. They had belonged to her mother-in-law who had recently died and she didn’t know what to do with them. They were beautiful buttons which spanned a century. They were made for an enormous range of garments from a huge variety of materials. I spent ages categorising them based on size, colour, age etc. It was compulsive.

I began to consider buttons. The practical and aesthetic nature of them. Each button in the tin was magnificent and unique. My own tin of buttons, by contrast, had become ordinary and usual- I had become so used to them that they had no resonance- but the new ones were extraordinary.

It seems that many of us collect buttons in a tin. We rarely use them; they are security in case a button is lost- but remain a solitary part of an increasing collection long after the item has hit the charity shop. Each button has a history, is representative of a design trend and era, they tells us about the quality of the garment and the type of occasion for which it was made. But what happens when we die and the tins of buttons are found? They are like photographs, deeply personal and important to the collector and strangely eerie and tainted to a stranger.

I wanted to explore the importance of buttons- of the need to collect, but also of our own personal response to the buttons and their stories. They perform a necessary function but are also badges of taste.

I had a friend at school who was button phobic. We didn’t take her phobia seriously and would purposefully attempt to scare her with buttons. How could anything so seemingly innocuous provoke such a vehement response. I decided to track her down and see how she felt about my new tin of buttons. She now avoids wearing buttons on her clothes, although it seems metal jean’s buttons are tolerable. She will avoid looking at or touching a button still and feels strongly when confronted by a button or an image of one. I was interested to consider what it was about the button that upset her- to explore the aesthetic qualities of the button: size, colour, design, material. I wanted to use the buttons I had been given as they had no personal connection for me or her. I sent her pictures of individual buttons, collections and of a series of buttons of the same material and colour but of different shapes. I asked her to comment on the photographs and to put the buttons in an order of repulsion. The language she used in her responses was strong, they were ‘disgusting’ or ‘repugnant’. I made a series of pictures based on these responses. She also spoke of a specific incident in a restaurant which had been particularly traumatic- I wanted to illustrate this moment.

It made me think that a button is a fantastic pointer of taste - our reaction is based not only material, shape, and colour but also psychological associations. In her case she had a specific psychological disgust which was at its height when the button was plain, plastic and with four holes - but she also had an aesthetic response- one button she felt unable to touch- but liked the colour, while another she felt was ’lowbrow’ due to the material and pattern.