Like buttons, buckles provide another small window into the fabulous and ornate clothing worn by our ancestors. If a button can be thought of as a “crowded little canvas portraying information about a given time and place,” then a buckle can be considered a similar if slightly larger canvas!
The history of buckles essentially parallels that of buttons. They first appeared attached to belts in the Bronze Age, approximately 3,000 BC. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, massive buckles were used on capes, shoes, and armor, often ornamented with flourishes of bronze and jewels of glass or stone. Only the nobility and members of the court were able to wear such highly decorated buckles. As with buttons, commoners and the emerging middle classes could not afford such luxuries until the effects of the Industrial Revolution made them accessible.
The buckles we collect and feature in our jewelry are products of the mid- to late-19th and early 20th centuries. Unlike earlier buckles, these were made primarily for women. The focus on ever tinier, corseted waists from the 1860s on made the buckle a newly important female fashion accessory!
Left: A page from an 1890s catalog shows the variety of stamped brass and cut steel buckles available for Victorian women to wear upon their tightly-cinched waists. Right: A French advertisement for Art Nouveau style buckles from 1908.
All of the techniques and materials used in buttons were also used to make buckles. In fact matching sets of enamel, porcelain and mother-of-pearl buttons and buckles were often sold in velvet-lined jewelry boxes for the discriminating Victorian lady.
Top row: French champleve’ enamel; gorgeous Art Nouveau guilloche enamel peacock feather; heavily ornamented brass with facetted sapphire glass jewel. Bottom row: filigreed brass with emerald glass jewels; French champleve’ enamel with glass stones; cut steel on a delicate brass filigree framework.
Victorian buckles shown in their primary function: accenting the tiny, corset-created wasp waists that so tortured ladies in the late 19th century.
Like buttons, buckles were used with extravagance in ways that had nothing to do with fastening: see them here accenting hats, flounces, and bustles.
Shoe buckles have been in and out of style from as early as the 14th century on. In the 17th and 18th centuries, shoe buckles of jewels and precious metals were status symbols among noblemen. They saw a huge revival in the late 19th century, this time on women’s shoes. Their popularity lasted through the Roaring Twenties, and there was also a bit of a revival in the 1960s. The shoe buckles we use are primarily from 1880 through the 1930s. By far our most popular shoe buckles are the brilliant, glittering Victorian and Edwardian cut steel ones. Most often made in France, these buckles were composed of dozens if not hundreds of bits of facetted steel individually riveted onto a silvered brass base.
Left to right: a satin-lined case with cut steel shoe buckles from our museum, circa 1880; a French advertisement for steel shoe buckles circa 1922; a pair of early 20th century shoes with faux cut steel shoe buckles.
Left: a French advertisement for Art Deco enamel shoe buckles circa 1922. Right: our own collection of similar buckles, old store stock found in a still-operating 19th century general store in Pennsylvania