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The history of the cuff link does not go as far back as you may think. Shirts were originally an item of men’s underwear and did not become an exposed garment until the 16th Century. The cuffs of the shirt, when it was an undergarment, were sometimes frilled or ruffed and allowed to be shown at the wrist. Some commentators suggest that this was a rather daring thing to do, much like exposing a hint of underpants today.
Cuffs of shirts were originally tied or laced with ribbons or tape ties, a practice that continued into the 19th Century, although by then buttons had been used for some time to close a cuff, a step that made it significantly easier for a person to dress themselves unaided.
There were several types of buttons in use, including the flat button that is familiar to us all today and which is sewn through directly onto a garment, and the shank button which has a hollow protrusion on the back through which a thread can be sewn to attach the button. This could also be attached when the protrusion was inserted into a hole on the garment and secured on the other side with a wire or clasp
Buttons for everyday use would have been made from horn, wood and shell, but as they became increasingly a decorative feature and made from more valuable materials such as silver, gold and precious stones, the buttons would have had to been removed before the garment was washed to avoid damage and re-sewed when dried and ironed.
We can guess that at about this point, some fashion conscious chap realised that joining two shank buttons together with a thread or a wire, would enable him to secure the open cuffs of his shirt more easily by having a buttonhole on each side of the cuff and threading the buttons through the buttonholes. Moreover, it would allow him to show a button on either side of each cuff and he wouldn’t need to pay a servant to re-sew his buttons continually.
Boutons de Manchette
All over the web you will find references to shirt sleeves being fastened for the first time with boutons de manchette, or “sleeve buttons,” during the reign of Louis XIV. This has been repeated without any verification that I can find, along with the statement that the boutons de manchette were “ typically identical pairs of coloured glass buttons joined together by a short, linked chain.” While the timing, 17th – 18th Century seems about right, I’m sure that the buttons used would more likely to have been made in a metal such as silver and that there would have been some experimentation with the joining method, such as the thread or wire mentioned previously, before someone hit on the use of a tiny linked chain.
The First Cufflinks
The illustration here of a pair of silver chain-link cufflinks, which are the earliest I can find, seem to bear this out. These date to the period of the restoration in England of King Charles II and appear to have been made to celebrate the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza on the 20th May 1662 and show clasped hands wearing stylish 17th century cuffs, while above there is a crown and below two hearts. The hearts and clasped hands motif are traditional symbols of marriage and union. These “sleeve buttons” may possibly have be worn by Royal supporters of Charles and may be an early example of manufacturing commemorative items for a Royal occasion.
The term “sleeve buttons” was certainly still in use in the UK in the late 17th Century where references using this term along with diamond cuff buttons and buttons set in gold and enamel can be found. The earliest reference to links is found 100-years later in the Birmingham Gazette in 1788.
However, it wasn’t until the middle of the 18th Century and the invention of steam driven stamping machines during the industrial revolution, that mass-produced men’s jewellery became available to a wider audience at more affordable prices.
French Cuffs & Single Cuffs
This may have encouraged the popularisation by the 1840s of what we now know as the French cuff – a double-cuff shirt that folds back on itself and is sometimes known as a kissing cuff – that remains popular today and for which we continue to make a variety of traditional and modern cufflinks.
Another driver for the popularisation of cuff links in the Victorian and Edwardian eras was the use of detachable collars and cuffs on shirts. The collars and cuffs would be starched rigid, making it virtually impossible to use a button to close them. Collars would be attached to the shirt with a collar stud and cuffs with a cuff link. The use of detachable collars and cuffs enabled the shirt to be worn for several days with a fresh collar added daily. Grubby cuffs could be reversed after the first days use and refreshed on the third day.
Turk’s Knot Cufflinks
An alternative fastener to the cufflink is the silk knot, also known as monkey’s fists or turk’s head. The famous Paris shirtmaker Charvet is credited with their introduction in 1904, although today they are rarely made from silk and elastic is used instead. Chavet customers have included Edward VII and Winston Churchill and the business still flourishes today on the Place Vendôme, a few doors away from its original location. The popularity of this fashion led to the introduction of metal cufflinks shaped to look like a silk knot – we make them in silver and they can be found on our website by following the link to Silver Cufflinks – Turks Knot.
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