The 14th century in Europe is notorious for many things, but one of my favorite (and less grim) legacies is the button. Mind you, buttons existed before the 14th century, but it was during this time that the fashionable integration of buttons gave us a true embarrassment of riches. Indeed, it is the 14th century’s copious application of buttons on clothing that draws many a historical clothier to the period. It certainly drew me. We modern people don’t wallow in buttons like they did, and I believe that the wearing of so many is novel to us.
The challenge, as with any effort in reproducing a realistic historical outfit, is to incorporate the subtle details that differentiate a costume from clothing. In the case of 14th century buttons, this requires a critical look at their placement on different clothing layers, as well as their size and position relative to each other. Attention to such details will absolutely make the difference between a generic costume and a realistic portrayal that stands a chance of passing the time-travel test. (You know what I mean… Imagine if you traveled to the actual time period. Would your appearance cause people to stop and stare and ask you where you’re from? Or, would you fit in reasonably well?)
As I have already detailed how buttons are used on long sleeves of foundation-layer clothing and on center-front openings for top-layer clothing in my paper “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Layers”, I won’t revisit that here. Instead, I will briefly examine button size and distance between buttons in various locations on garments.
Buttons on sleeves in the 14th century ranged from a few placed near the wrist to a bunch placed from wrist to above the elbow. They also had a surprisingly large range of size. Depending on the particular fashion, sleeve buttons could have a diameter as tiny as a quarter-inch wide and as large as almost an inch wide.
Here we have an example of a lady’s sleeves from 1315, Marguerite de Dampierre, whose tomb is in the Louvre:
The tomb sculpture is life-sized and the buttons are about a quarter-inch each, or perhaps as tiny as 5mm. Note how close together they are. This is a signature style point of 14th century sleeves. Buttons are frequently crowded together, sometimes almost touching each other. Sleeve buttons in particular are often quite small. Here are some English ladies demonstrating this style:
For contrast, take a look at the famous sleeves of the pourpoint of Charles de Blois:
These buttons are prominent and large, but like the images above, they are also placed close together.
To give you an idea of the variety and similarities among 14thc sleeve button arrangements, here is a random sampling from 14thc art depicting buttoned long sleeves in various geographical locations in Europe. Click a thumbnail to see the larger size of an image (and click your browser’s Back button to return to this page):
As you can see, the number of buttons varies, but as a general rule, they are not placed too far apart from each other.
Buttons used for a center-front closure are somewhat different. They are usually slightly larger than those seen on sleeves, and are sometimes placed with a greater distance between each button.
Two famous extant male garments dated to the second half of the 14th century in France, the pourpoints of Charles de Blois and Charles VI, respectively, have their center-front closure buttons placed relatively close together. The former is shown above, and the latter can be seen here:
I believe the crowding of buttons on such garments is more likely to occur when the garment is relatively snug to the body and the opening extends through most or all of the torso. The more buttons there are, the more strength there is to the join of the two front pieces. When the garment is loose, the chance of the front opening springing apart unexpectedly is smaller. If the opening only extends a small way down the chest, an unexpected parting is less likely to result in an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction. Hence, lots of buttons close together on a center-front opening of a tight garment that opens the length of the torso makes sense.
In the imagery of close-fitting women’s gowns which are clearly intended to be worn over a foundation dress, or kirtle, or cotte (really, just pick your favorite term), the art of the period sometimes shows larger buttons spaced somewhat apart from each other, relative to the crowded placement seen on sleeves:
The stakes are not terribly high, should this style of dress pop open. There is another dress underneath, providing modesty. The buttons and their spacing also indicate that the top layer is not so tight as to create “negative ease”, wherein the garment squeezes the body and places a great deal of tension against the buttons. Using buttons to hold edges together under strain is never really a great idea.
Another subtle touch you can use to separate your interpretation of a 14th century buttoned garment from the loads of iffy costumes out there is to sew your buttons to the edge of the garment, rather than in from the edge, as is done with modern button placement. We have a number of extant examples of buttons sewn to the edge, namely fragments from the Museum of London finds and the pourpoint of Charles VI. The Malatesta farsetto is another great example, though it’s dated to the early 15th century.
I’ve found from my own experience that buttons sewn to the edge of the garment do not cause it to gape open, provided the button shanks (the stems or stalks of the buttons) are not longer than the distance from the edge of the garment to each buttonhole. If your shanks are longer than that distance, they are either too long or you have placed the buttonholes too close to the edge. Placing the buttonholes about a quarter-inch in from the edge is a good standard of distance to keep. If you are making your own buttons, make sure the shank is shorter than a quarter inch. If using pre-made buttons with shanks built in, measure the shank length and place your buttonholes slightly further in from the edge.
Unlike modern people, medieval folks did not expect their openings to overlap excessively when joined by buttons. A minimal overlap was sufficient in most cases, because there was usually another layer worn beneath. At the very least, one’s shirt or chemise would cover the area.
In situations where a large overlap made sense, such as with martial garments, medieval tailors created a placket or underlap, which can be seen in the extant pourpoint of Edward, the Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral and the pourpoint of Charles VI. This was a strip of padded material that sat behind the buttons and buttonholes and provided an extra barrier against gaps.
If you’re relatively new to 14th century clothing, I hope this brief analysis has provided insight you can use when you make your next buttoned garment. It’s always best to remain aware of geographical and time-based differences and to try not to copy what you see other 14th century enthusiasts doing. Instead, I recommend going to the sources, confirming any assertions you read (including mine), and then going forth and creating something you can be confident is more “clothing” than “costume”.