Parisian Insights: Déboutonner la Mode at the Arts Décoratifs

To be very honest, Déboutonner la Mode (Unbuttoning Fashion) is probably one of the fashion-related exhibitions I was least excited about this season. Not that the subject did not interest me (being obsessed by the fact of looking at garments from behind, buttons surely occupy a prominent place in my passion) but rather was I worried to find its presentation a little boring. Not easy to create an imaginative and dramatic exposition with such tiny accessories! Yet the Arts Décoratifs made a fabulous job in designing a captivating black walled display that not only brings the attention on the buttons as objects of embellishment but also as true artistic and historical works. Another fascinating element of this exhibition is the story that lays behind: that of a collector, Loic Allio whose 3000 button collection is the main actor of the display. With creations by Alberto Giacometti for Elsa Schiaparelli, Hans Arp, Sonia Delaunay, the sculptor Henri Hamm or the jewelers Francis Winter and Roger Jean-Pierre, raging from the 18th century, its age d’or, to the contemporary period (the display is organized in a chronological order), the exhibition is highly eclectic as it testifies of the variety of craftsmen that have lent their talent to button designs. Thanks to many photographies, drawings, paintings but also garments by Paul Poiret, Christian Dior or André Courrèges, the exhibition perfectly contextualizes the creativity and the cultural significancy of buttons as well as their influence on the aesthetic and silhouette of fashion while it helps us link the miniature objects observed within glasses cases to their greater background, thus adding dynamism to the display.

Buttons par Henri Hamm

Buttons par Henri Hamm

The fashion department in the museum always presents its exhibitions on two floors. Here, the first floor ends with the 1910 decade and shows how buttons had become a luxurious and social adornment item during the 18th century – they then responded to strict rules that defined their position on the garment as well as their making – but also the means of political propaganda during the French Revolution – a fantastic example resides in a button garnished with the depiction of a slave and bearing the words: ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’. In the 19th century, buttons become more discreet and practical thanks to the industrial revolution. Buttons feature various sizes and colors and appear on almost every fashion item: from lingerie to shoes.

Women Garments in the 19th century display

Women Garments in the 19th century display

With the early 1910s and the Art Nouveau Movement, buttons bear a precious identity again as they are created by artists and jewelers. From social objects, they become decorative naturalistic works and adornments that families adoringly keep in jewelers boxes and pass on to future generations. Paul Poiret emphasizes their importance, believing that knowing where to place them on garments answers ‘a secret geometry that is the key to beauty’. On the second floor, we enter the Art Deco aesthetic of the 1920s while French great couturiers collaborate with gifted craftsmen to design the exquisite buttons of their creations – Madeleine Vionnet accompanied her bias cut dresses with buttons that enhanced the fluidity and asymmetry of her aesthetic – and eccentric designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli dare to collaborate with avant-garde artists such as Pablo Picasso, Hans Arp or Salvador Dali. With World War II, buttons convey noble political messages and symbols again while postwar haute couture uses delicate creations – Christian Dior adds narrative to his garments with buttons while Cristobal Balenciaga believes that a perfectly calculated amount of buttons sculpts the entire structure of his designs – and emerging ready-to-wear associates its minimalist identity to graphic and geometrical buttons.

Elsa Schiaparelli, 1937

Elsa Schiaparelli, 1937

With the 1980s, zippers become the norm and the use of buttons has since declined but such designers as Jean Paul Gaultier or Yves Saint Laurent who believed that buttons are the precious stones of clothing, prove to cherish those fragile adornments when they install them at the centre of their creations’ embellishment.

While there is something incredibly familiar with buttons as they belong to our everyday existence, as they have accompany us from the learning of fastening our childhood clothes to that of the sensual gesture of unbuttoning one’s garments during a romantic encounter, with this exhibition we observe how much they have been and are the allies of elegance and ornamentation, building the cut of a garment and thus structuring the silhouette. Today as they have become most often minimalist and almost invisible on our contemporary everyday clothes, they nonetheless are the agents of technical innovations and history.


Exhibition held at the Arts Décoratifs until 19th July 2015

Further Resources:

Take a look at Tove Hermann’s post about buttons enemies: zippers

The exhibition’s catalogue: Belloir, Véronique. Déboutonner la Mode. Paris: Les Arts Décoratifs, 2015.

Allio, Loic. Boutons. Paris: Seuil, 2001.

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