“Buttons can be made from just about anything, from elephant skin to raffia,” announces a text on the wall of “Déboutonner la Mode” (“Unbutton Fashion”). The “Deboutonner la mode” exhibition is a good opportunity to start unbuttoning unique fashion collections and exhibits not only a unique worldwide collection of more than 3000 buttons but also a large selection of more than 100 fashion pieces of clothes and accessories by emblematic couturiers such as Paul Poiret, Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier and Patrick Kelly.
The 3000 unique buttons on display, gathered by prolific collector Loïc Allio, who was the first to start unbuttoning unique fashion collections, include pearls, leather, fur, bone, wood, straw, plastic, Wedgwood and papier-mâché. Acquired in 2012, this collection was classified as a Work of Major Heritage Interest by the Consultative Commission on National Treasures. The artist and writer’s collection is absolutely unique because he bargained-hunted all the buttons in the French junk shops and auctions, throughout 25 years. A fashion excitement tied to the iconic Made in France; frequently diverted and reinvented the fashion shows collection from Chanel to Saint-Laurent.
Especially designed as a small and specific accessory, the exhibition charts the chronological tour of the unique buttons throughout the ages and invites the visitor to rediscover the essence of this essential accessory. “The exhibition is about understanding the role of the silhouette,” Véronique Belloir, its curator, explains. “It puts in context what buttons say about fashion, and beyond fashion.” Made and manufacture by a wide spectrum of artisans from embroiderers, soft furnishers, glassmakers and ceramicists to jewellers and silversmiths, all of whom were interested in unbuttoning unique fashion collections, and then curate the history and evolution of this art form. The button has also fascinated famous painters, sculptors and creators of jewellery, inspiring them to produce unique miniature creations for the great couture houses.
The first floor of the exhibition ends with the 1910s and the return of the so-called “Empire” line under the influence of the avant-garde inspired couturier Paul Poiret, for whom the importance of detail, for instance a unique button and its precise positioning, is dictated by a “secret geometry that is the key to aestheticism.”
Buttons first appear in the latest period of the 13th-century, but entered their Golden Age at the end of the 18th-century, in France. Considered to be an exclusive and desirable luxury accessory, buttons are more expensive than the garment. For 18th-century men, buttons could be as costly a luxury as the garments they ornamented but only two or three were actually functional.
During the industrial revolution, manufacture of buttons expanded and budded in every women’s unique piece of clothing like gloves, ankle booties and fine lingerie. Truly inspirational, the French designer and couturier Paul Poiret considered buttons as a piece of art towards 1910. As a matter of fact, he was the first couturier to give buttons a bona fide place in his designs, while the 1930s saw the ever-fanciful Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli commissioning custom buttons in ceramic and resin to match the playful themes of her evening-wear collections.
In the 1950s, buttons emphasised the cut of the female silhouette, as exemplified by a Christian Dior red wool dress with a fetching double column of black buttons down the back; Courrèges used buttons graphically, Yves Saint Laurent used them as embellishment, and Mademoiselle Chanel had a firmly pragmatic design strategy: “No buttons without buttonholes.” Furthermore, couture houses such as Balenciaga, Mme Grès, Givenchy, Balmain and Jean-Paul Gaultier enlisted the talents of the jewellers Francis Winter and Roger Jean-Pierre, and the exhibition also features creations by Sonia Delaunay and Line Vautrin.
Since its inception, buttons have always kept a key place on our clothes. More than an ornament, buttons are the way to display our tendencies, and permit to transmit humoristic, private or political messages. Hereafter the designer’s expressions, the exhibition highlights the way in which some fashion designers set and interpret buttons on their creations. They all have different unique interpretations to imagine the headline of the buttons of the piece of clothes. For example, some Jean Paul Gaultier garments, like the trouser-suit are entirely covered by small pearly buttons, or Celine coats, which revisits in subtle ways the classical two-button closure.