February 2, 2010
Final Fashion can be very serendipitous sometimes. I never know who is reading, and I never know who is touched by my words and pictures until they reach out and touch back.
Gwendolyne of Gwendolyne Hats was a silent reader who wanted to meet me, and she offered her support as a sponsor – but more than that she has a lot to say to me in person that couldn’t be communicated online. Gwendolyne doesn’t match the usual profile of my site’s visitors – she’s older and not very interested in fashion – and rather than asking me questions she is compelled to pass on her own knowledge. It was apparent when she reached out that it was a cue for me to listen and learn.
Gwendolyne makes hats that reveal a passion for materials and objects with substance and provenance. She is attracted to richly textured, warm materials with a sense of history and combines them in an intuitive, careful way. In particular she is fascinated with the products of the industrial age in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and patronizes the dwindling number of modern manufacturers who have preserved the same equipment and techniques.
Besides collecting textiles, Gwendolyne is an avid collector of buttons, and after she showed me her button collection briefly the first time we met, my mind would return to it whenever I thought of her, with a persistent curiousity. So I asked to come visit again and talk buttons.
Buttons are tiny objects which I’ve never examined so closely before, though I touch them every day. As someone trained as a designer, I’ve thought about buttons in terms of size and colour, how they might complement a garment, and the technicalities of creating a closure, but I’ve never really appreciated buttons as objects in their own right before.
The first button Gwendolyne showed me was this unusual button with a motif of what looks like a dog jumping through a tire – in fact the button is made of vulcanized rubber, and on the back there is the name Goodyear and a patent number. (You can right-click any of these photos to see them larger.) As you can see Gwendolyne has a lot of these rubber buttons, many by Goodyear and some by other manufacturers. She says that they smell when they get wet.
The story of these buttons is fascinating. Mr. Goodyear was the inventor of the vulcanization process, an innovation in manufacturing that made him very rich. In time, his process, though patented, was taken by other manufacturers. Mr. Goodyear spent his fortune trying to protect his patents, a fight which left him poor by the time he died.
“This button is about remembering to let go,” Gwendolyne says.
Gwendolyne sometimes chooses buttons to use as embellishments on her hats, and she puts them on tiny scraps of leather as talismans, zipper pulls or key chains. I asked her if the buttons suggest the hat design or the other way around? She told me that she doesn’t buy materials with a particular design in mind, and that the embellishments and fabrics come together in an intuitive way rather than a particular order.
These buttons made from another example of another industrial-age innovation based on new materials found in the colonies – vegetable ivory. The South American nut above would be carved and coloured into buttons with a hard, light quality. At the top of the picture are two picture buttons with a design which was pressed into them. These buttons are another example of imitation. Motifs are often copied, as they have always been, and often simplified or changed in small ways.
These colourful buttons are from the 1950s, made with plastic. Besides figurative designs, they show an exploration of the possibilities of techniques like extrusion. The motifs and colours are brash and outrageous – bowls of fruit like Carmen Miranda hats, heavy-handed Orientalism.
These are glass buttons. The ones on the bottom left are from Victorian times, extravagant in embellishment yet subdued in black jet. You can see some different types of shanks on these buttons – Gwendolyne has as much fascination with the backs of the buttons as she does with the fronts – the attention paid to the hidden part of the button reveals the amount of care that was given to the manufacturing of these buttons, which were assembled by hand, sometimes from many tiny pieces.
The final set of buttons shown here share human figures in common – and on the left in particular, hands. The beauty of these buttons, filled with tiny details and often multiple parts for a single button, is exquisite.
The last button Gwendolyne pointed out to me is the small button in the middle left with a fist on it. She says that she believes this may be a symbol of the suffragette movement – who are known to have used such small subtle embellishments as quiet indicators of their unconventional beliefs. There is no way to know for sure, but all of the determination and protest contained in such a small object does give it this palpable sense of power. It stands apart from the other pretty, decorative buttons in a way that is remarkable.
Thank you Gwendolyne for showing me your work and your buttons, and for teaching me to be open, to look more closely, and listen carefully.