Buttons are cute, not sinister? However, working on a cultural history of buttons, On the Button, I’ve been struck by how such apparently trivial objects can sometimes bear considerable moral force. They might have outrageous monetary value or just be the most ordinary and disregarded of fastenings. Some have a more sinister, hidden history. The outlandish paraphernalia of Q, supplying James Bond with ingenious buttons to take photographs, work as two-way radios or trigger explosive devices, have long been outstripped by today’s microchip technologies… if Spooks is anything to go by. Even one’s Blackberry can fulfil some of the tasks once thought to exist only in the imagination of the sci-fi writer.

Fiction aside, the button provides an apparently innocent receptacle for mischief. In seventeenth century Italy there are examples of buttons that conceal a spike with which to puncture an unsuspecting victim, or a catch, which would open to reveal a secret dose of sedative or slow-acting poison. Commando troops and those setting out on spying missions in WWII were issued with poison-filled buttons in case of torture. Some forces wore buttons about their person, housing compasses for navigation if caught behind enemy lines. M19 issued over two million such compasses, with the appearance of ordinary military brass buttons, the RAF unscrewing to the left, the Royal Navy to the right, in order to confuse possible captors, it is said. Some were fitted with pressure fit closures, on cap or boot buttons.

Buttons have long been convenient for smuggling purposes. In the 1942 film, Blue, White and Perfect, Nazi sympathizers steal industrial diamonds from an allied aircraft plant, destined we are told for Hitler’s dress buttons. Indeed the Second World War has provided many examples of the button’s more disturbing role. Polish workers in the Lódz ghetto were impelled to become major producers of buttons for the Reich. Large quantities of buttons easily recall the clothing piled outside concentration camps. The care taken in separating out buttons and logging their different types and values is a grim instance of the collector’s drive. Buttons have come to stand for the individuals lost, in for example the Holocaust memorial in Peoria, Illinois. Buttons of all shapes, sizes and monetary value are gathered together in glass towers, eleven million in all, to represent the 6 million Jews and 5 million enemies-of-the-state civilians killed. They are fitting symbols because they hold things together, yet can easily be undone, as in the strength and fragility of family and community. The 18 towers are arranged in the shape of the Star of David, symbolizing life, two rows representing the selection of who was to live or die, and the triangular shapes standing for gypsies, homosexuals and the handicapped. In Kirklees a similar project included a bag of 41 buttons donated by an elderly women, to represent the 41 members of her family who had died in the Holocaust.

An absence of buttons can also be significant. Joseph Beuys in his work Felt Suit, fashioned from something that can be and was once made from recycled human fat and hair, has no buttons at all. Perhaps it evokes a prisoner in buttonless scrubs or a court martial, with disgraced soldier ritually stripped of rank. When buttons are elaborate and showy – and the Third Reich was particularly keen on such regalia – then a lack of such gaudiness can be revealing. Despite the sartorial excesses of many leading Nazi officers - such as Hermann Göring, who delighted in his got up fancy ensembles – Hitler himself was notably understated in style. One might say that his lack of what Kurt Vonnegut terms the ‘madly theatrical’ aspects of Nazi dress, and in particular his decision not to wear gaudy buttons, enhanced his profile as a man of the people, helped him seem less military than his command, and thus all the more persuasive.

In collaboration with I:B.Tauris: www.ibtauris.com