A slightly cheaty BotW pick this week, as I actually finished The Button Box this morning, although I did read most of it last week. But having already written about The Trouble with Mistletoe and How Love Actually Ruined Christmas in my Recommendsday post, and having written frequently about Rivers of London and Lumberjanes, it seemed like the obvious choice none the less (if I could finish it of course!).
The Button Box is an examination on the changing lives of women through the 20th century, using the contents of the author’s button box, which contains items owned by her mother and her grandmother as well as from her own clothes gone by. From Victorian mourning jewellery through to Biba and the 70s, Lynn Knight uses buttons and buckles to trace the evolution of female life in a century that saw huge changes as women started to have the ability to have a life beyond the domestic and careers became an option – rather than working until marriage – or sitting at home waiting for marriage to come to you depending on your class.
As an avid reader of books written or set pre-1950, I found the sections on the realities of women’s wardrobes and clothing in those periods absolutely fascinating. The obsession with the ability to sew in my beloved boarding school stories – and the anger of the teachers when a pupil got a fresh tunic covered in ink – come into sharper focus when you realise exactly how small the children’s wardrobes likely were, as well as the struggles that parents must have had to find the money for all the clothes their boarders needed. My grandma used to tell stories of some of her schoolmates not having proper shoes, or having carried a baked potato to school to keep their hands warm en route and then eating it for lunch, but when you’re little it doesn’t really sink in. During the early stages of the book I found myself thinking – more than once – of my wardrobe full of clothes and my easy ability to buy more and feeling lucky but also guilty.
Knight is also able to talk at length about the importance of home dressmakers and home dress making – which was also fascinating. My mum did some sewing (still does really) but mostly nice extras – like the strawberry patterned kaftan she made for me (with a little help from me!) when i was about 10. My mother in law made me a pinafore apron for Christmas (it’s amazing) and is helping me with a Mary Quant design the V&A published more than a year ago before the virus hit, but it’s all recreational stuff – it’s not out of necessity. And the book is full of little insights – like women in the era before reliable contraception sitting downstairs doing their darning in the hope that by the time they got to bed their husbands would be asleep. And on top of everything else, it would definitely make a useful addition to the research shelf of any author writing books set in the first half of the twentieth century.
My copy of The Button Box is an advance copy of the hardback, which has been sitting on the to-read bookshelf for some years – I think it came from the proofs trolley at work, back in the days when that was a thing. I want to say that I picked it up after reading a review of it in the Literary Review, but the review might have been after – or it might not have existed at all because I can’t find a link to it! Anyway, that’s all to say, that it’s been around so long it’s been out in paperback for three years – I don’t know if you’ll be able to find it actually in a shop or you’ll have to order it, but Foyles has stock, so you never know. And it’s available in Kindle and Kobo too.
Bonus Photo: The paperback cover of The Button Box – I thought it was an updated kindle one, but it only shows in the kindle library view – when you open the book up it does that irritating thing of having a different cover (the only thing more irritating, being not having a cover at all!)