The Button Box by Lynn Knight – The Guardian review

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This is a lively and personal history of clothing and the changes in women’s lives, from the white blouse revolution and ‘lazy tongs’ to mini-skirts and the Sindy doll

That can a tin of old buttons tell us about anything? Most households have one, lurking at the back of a drawer or the bottom of a sewing basket, and most children have rooted around in it, choosing favourites among the contents or playing with them as tokens. To the memoirist and historian Lynn Knight they are tokens of a different kind, recalling the old clothes they were made to fasten and embellish, the housewives and mothers who made and wore those clothes, and the lives they contained.

Inspired by her own shimmering box of toggles, clasps and buckles, Knight takes us on an ingenious tour of domestic and social history over the last century or so: a 1914 thimble makes her think of the “munitionettes” of the Great War, a Land Army button of the second world war, a jet button prompts thoughts of mourning, a suspender clasp of sex, the pearl buttons from a baby’s dress of her mother’s adoption in the 1930s and of other foundling histories. It is to do with class as much as gender, for this writer anyway: her collection comes from a great-grandmother who ran a corner shop in working-class Chesterfield at the turn of the 20th century; a great-aunt who was a low-budget snazzy dresser; and a mother who craved a bit of glamour in the postwar provinces. From this core of very personal material, Knight writes more generally of ordinary women’s lives and changing prospects over three generations, of clothes as self-expression, as defiance, as entertainment, as evidence of frugality and frivolity all rolled into one.

Read more from the Guardian website here.

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