As with so many other things which have been discussed here, with regard to a new kind of men’s, and occasionally, women’s, clothing accessory, the term cuff link was just coming into use during the Regency. However, that garment accessory had actually been in use for more than a century, though for most of that time it was known as the sleeve button. But a "sleeve button" was no ordinary button, it had a special form all its own.
How the sleeve button crept off the coat and onto the shirt . . .
By the seventeenth century, fashionable men in England were wearing a suit of clothes which included a coat, a waistcoat and breeches. In the latter decades of that century, the cuffs on those coats became increasingly deeper, until the cuffs were turned back as much as ten to twelve inches. These coat cuffs were fairly heavy, and buttons became the accessory of choice to keep them in place. Buttons were a popular form of male adornment, as they had been for over a century. In England, women did not begin wearing buttons in any significant numbers until the middle of the nineteenth century.
Buttons of the seventeenth century were typically large, which was the fashion for much of the century. Those who could afford it imported their buttons from France. French buttons were considered the most stylish, and they were certainly the most expensive. Louis XIV had full sets of coat buttons set with diamonds, and diamond-studded buttons had become popular among the English aristocracy, along with buttons made of gold, silver and various precious and semi-precious gems. Such buttons were much too costly to be sewn onto a single coat. Therefore, many coat cuffs at that time were made with a double row of button holes into which "sleeve buttons" could be placed. These special "buttons" actually consisted of a pair of buttons which were joined together by their shanks. The sleeve buttons could then be slipped through the dual button holes in the cuffs of any coat a gentleman chose to wear, thus allowing a man to use his sleeve buttons with any coat in his wardrobe.
During the reign of William and Mary, in the last decade of the seventeenth century, the importation of foreign buttons was outlawed in Britain. The aims of this Act of Parliament were an effort to stimulate the British button trade as well as reducing the money which was flowing to France. Curiously, the making of covered buttons was also prohibited. This had the effect that the majority of buttons, including sleeve buttons, were made of metal, mostly in brass, but also in silver and gold. Despite the ban on French imports, sleeve buttons became more popular than ever, in part because more of them were sold at a more affordable price. The button-making industry was centered in Birmingham, where the majority of sleeve buttons were made. Matthew Boulton, who went into partnership with James Watt, was a Birmingham button maker. Most of the buttons produced in Birmingham were made from metal alloys which gave the appearance of the "noble" metals, such as silver, gold, or platinum, but were much less costly. However, there were a number of jewelers and goldsmiths in the large cities and towns who still made bespoke sleeve buttons for their wealthier customers which were made from the noble or precious metals and might be set with precious or semi-precious stones.
Through most of the eighteenth century, sleeve buttons were used on the cuffs of a gentleman’s coat. There was little point in using sleeve buttons to secure the cuffs of a shirt, since men’s shirt cuffs were narrow bands obscured by the froth of lace most men wore at their wrists. Shirt cuffs were then typically secured with small, plain studs. But as the century came to a close, lace cuffs fell out of fashion and men’s shirt cuffs were no longer a narrow band to which the lace was attached. In the absence of lace, the shirt cuff became deeper. The plain cloth cuff extended beyond the hem of the coat sleeve, which no longer had cuffs. After the turn of the nineteenth century, many men continued to wear their sleeve buttons. But they wore them on their shirt cuffs, rather than their coat cuffs. At about the same time, the plain stud began to be used to secure the neck of the shirt.
A great many sleeve buttons have survived into modern times. Along with those which have been found in various archaeological excavations, it is clear that sleeve buttons were made in a wide variety designs. Many of the early sleeve buttons were made of silver or gold, the most usual shapes round or oval. Some were set with precious and semi-precious gems, while others had the owner’s crest or cypher cast or engraved into the surface. But when sleeve buttons were made in larger numbers in Birmingham, additional materials were used. Metal alloys and glass were used instead of noble metals and precious stones. Enamel was another material was also widely used. With the many colors which were available in enamels, all kinds of images could be produced in miniature to ornament sleeve buttons.
As the seventeenth century came to an end, and nearly all sleeve buttons were made in Britain, many popular motifs could be found on the new sleeve buttons. The themes of these motifs ranged from the political to the cultural to the sporting. The visages of monarchs, victorious generals and admirals, or other noted political figures were regularly seen on sleeve buttons. So, too, were the faces of famous opera singers, actors and actresses, as well as other well-known figures of the present or the past. Vast numbers of sleeve buttons were made which depicted nearly every sport which gentlemen enjoyed. There were sleeve buttons with images of men driving, fox-hunting, racing horses, fencing, cricket, coursing, shooting and boxing. In fact, any personal interest which could be represented by an image could appear on a set of sleeve buttons.
By the Regency, when these linked sleeve buttons were used to secure the cuffs of shirt sleeves, they came to be called "cuff links" by some of the gentlemen who used them. In most cases, older men still referred to them as sleeve buttons while younger men were more likely to call them cuff links. The studs which were then used to secure formal shirt collars remained plain in style and design, since they were covered by the cravat. Studs would not be made in sets with cuff links until the reign of Queen Victoria. Most Regency gentlemen would have more than one set of sleeve buttons, or cuff links, some in a very formal style and motif and others for more casual wear. For example, a gentleman might have a set of gold or silver cuff links with his family crest for formal occasions, while he might wear a pair of enamel cuff links depicting fox-hunting or coursing while he was engaged in one of those sports. A man who favored another kind of sport might wear sleeve buttons which carried the image of his favorite actress or opera dancer. Those with a political turn of mind might have cuff links which depicted one of the powerful members of the party they supported. Military men might wear sleeve buttons on which could be seen victorious commanders or the insignia of their regiment.
Prior to the early nineteenth century, most women secured their garments with laces, pins, ribbons and hooks. Even then, only a very few women wore buttons, and those were usually sleeve buttons which they used to secure the cuffs on the jackets of their military-style riding habits, which had become fashionable during the Regency. Military or pseudo-military motifs were popular for these ladies’ sleeve buttons, but a wide range of styles and motifs in sleeve buttons were also available to ladies. Therefore, they could wear a set of cuff links which proclaimed their personal interests, as did most men. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century, when buttons were then made by machine and they became smaller, plentiful and inexpensive that buttons were used routinely on ladies’s garments.
During the Regency, sleeve buttons, or cuff links, gave gentlemen an opportunity to subtly display images of their personal interests on the cuffs of their shirts. Sleeve buttons which bore images of Nelson and Wellington were popular, as were those which featured famous public or historical figures. Remarkably, there were sleeve buttons made with the image of the Prince Regent, though there are no surviving records to indicate how many of them were made or sold. Military men often wore cuff links with military insignia or famous commanders, even when they were not wearing their uniforms. For more casual wear, sleeve buttons with sporting motifs were often seen, while for an evening in the gaming hells or brothels, men might wear cuff links with images from playing cards or the faces of famous courtesans. Sleeve buttons or cuff links of the Regency could be quite revealing to an alert observer.
Dear Regency Authors, could a set of sleeve buttons be of use in one of your upcoming stories? Perhaps the heroine finds a set of sleeve buttons in the hero’s possession. Those sleeve buttons bear the face of a notorious courtesan. Will the heroine jump to conclusions, unaware that the hero has recently taken them away from his younger brother, who was dropping vast sums to spend time with the woman? Or, might an arrogant villain inadvertently reveal his interest in a subversive political faction by wearing cuff links with their emblem? Then again, the heroine,who is an avid rider to hounds might have a set of sleeve buttons for her riding habit which depicts that sport. How might the hero react when he sees them, particularly if he considers hunting an unlady-like activity? Could an old set of sleeve buttons conceal a family secret which leads the hero to a treasure which enables him to save the family estate? Are there other ways in which a set of sleeve buttons or cuff links can play a part in a Regency romance?