Fashion Fact: Muslims Invented Buttons

I’d like to explore the positive influences the East has contributed to the West and remember a time when the two borrowed from and exchanged ideas with each other. An area that fascinates me is the historical influence of Eastern fashion on the West. Did you know that the West adopted the idea of buttons from the East? In the early Medieval period, European clothing was normally secured with brooches, pins, or laces (also known as points). Buttons were part of the Middle Eastern and Central Asian tradition of coats from an early date.

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The Moors wore long gown with buttons, but buttons were not adopted by the Spaniards until later. Buttons can also be seen in a Moorish ceiling painting in the Alhambra (c. 1354). By 1292, button making is one of the trades listed in a document from Paris, so by this date, buttons were beginning to come in to use in France at least.

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The sixteenth century was a period in which in both war and commerce the Ottomans were a crucial issue for the European powers. Henry VIII is known to have been taken with Turkish dress. He appeared dressed as a Turkish Sultan as part of a masquerade at an English court. Toward the end of his reign in 1542, Henry VIII posed for a portrait that is a striking comparison (apart from headgear) to that of his contemporary, Süleyman the Magnificent, but because of the pose even more dramatically resembles that of a later sixteenth-century sultan, Mehmed III.

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On sixteenth century European coats, rows of horizontal bands form distinctive closures not previously seen in European fashion. Comparable examples can be seen on kaftans from the late 15th century in the Topkapi collections. The Turkish examples use an applied flat silk braid joining the fronts with a button and loop; Henry’s more ostentatious Mannerist version is created in bejeweled gold, but braid equivalents were also being used. This type of closure first appears in European dress in the first half of the sixteenth century, and would become a staple of European fashion, particularly associated with military or ceremonial dress.

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However, it does not only appear as a closure on men’s coats. A portrait of Elizabeth I c. 1575 has a bodice closed with bands of decorative braid. When trade negotiations were concluded in 1581 between the Ottoman Empire and the English, the exchange of royal gifts included an entire ensemble of Turkish clothing sent by Sultan Murad to Elizabeth.