Fastenings Across the Ages


 Throughout the history humans have come up with a variety of ways to get their garments to close and fit – ‘to make ends meet’.  For someone just beginning their adventure with historical clothing, the labyrinth of which fastening on what garments in which era may seem a bit daunting – is it lacing? If so, what kind of lacing, or should it be buttons, or points or hooks and eyes? In the present article I plan to make the maze a little simpler and discuss what kind of fastening were used in which periods, from early medieval to Victorian.

1. Brooches  

One of the earlier fastening to be introduced in Europe – early garments were rather loosely-fitting tunics, kirtles and cloaks. To go over the wearer’s head the opening had to be wide enough – but too big an opening was not always welcome. Enter the ‘keyhole opening’ – a round neckline with a slit in front. Small brooches were used to fasten the edges of the slit together – and the wealthier the person, the more ornate the brooch. Bigger brooches were used for cloaks and mantles or for the Viking overdresses ( apron, or Danish dresses). Although maybe most popular in the medieval times, brooches have survived the last millennium both as practical and decorative items – and they are still used to pin traditional Scottish attire nowadays, for instance.


Viking brooch from the British Museum


Brooches for the cloaks, Bayeoux tapestry


another brooch from the British museum


Tudor ‘ouches’ – a more ornamental variation of the brooch, often used on sleeves – here in the portrait of Isabela of Portugal


Ouches on restoration bodices – again, more ornamental than practical – a perfect example on the bodice of Mary Henrietta


Regency brooch, italina, from the British Museum

2. Laces (and their variants)

It seems that one of the earliest laced garments were 12th century bliaut – there is still a lot of controversy around this, but I am pretty convinced it was the first time when dress edges were actually laced together ( more on it in my article on the bliaut construction)

Dresses in this period were laced at the sides through hand sewn eyelets , using a plaited or woven cord.

The same method was used in late medieval kirtles – from the 14th century onwards there is more and more evidence of gowns and kirtles being laces at the sides, as well as the front or back.



The method of lacing varied – cross-lacing was used alongside ladder- and spiral-lacing. The eyelets were hand sewn, sometimes with a metal ring being placed over the hole and over sewn with linen thread, rendering the eyelet more robust – but no grommets were used at all, until they were introduced in the 19th century.

Sometimes metal rings were used on their own – here used to lace a burgundian gown.  Lacing continued to be used throughout history as it was a convenient method of closing the garment tightly – the following garments could be laced:

Medieval: doublets, cotehardies, kirtles, gowns, jacks;


laced kirtle. boccace_de-mulieribus-claris_vers1490_Argia_web


side lacing


laced doublet


11. laced gown michael pacher, mary of burgundy


12. lacing on the kirtle, pin on the sleeve Stark-triptyque_National-Gallery-of-Art_1480_detail

Tudor: kirtles and gowns (lacing usually hidden under the placard),

Stuart – dresses, gowns, bodies (stays), buff coats




buffcoat, laced, 1640VAM


14.Gerard Terborch (Dutch Baroque Era Painter, 1617-1681) Mirror


stays and busk, VAM

18th century: stays (predominantly spiral-lacing with offset eyelets), ‘robe francaise’ (at the back, under the pleats, serving more as a fit adjusting means here)), for waistcoats and breeches (at the back), jackets, robes (with lacing over the stomacher – often only decorative)


16. stays 1780, VAM


Detail of a 1725 Robe à la Française, LACMA. example of decorative lacing


waistcoat – back, VAM

 19th century – stays, corsets, dresses,


late Victorian bodice, lacing eyelets


Worth polonaise, laced in front, VAM


corset lacing, 1864 VAM

Ties and points are, in a way, a variation of lacing as in principle the idea is similar – using a strip or two of fabric or a cord to tie garments together.

Points were introduced first in medieval times, 11th-13th century, as a means of attaching a single hose to the braies. In the following centuries, as hose extended up and covered more and more leg and buttock, more points were needed, as was a more robust garment to which they could be laced. Late medieval doublets, pourpoints, etc, sport pairs of eyelets at the hem to which another pair on the hose corresponds – a cord with metal ‘aguillettes’ was passed through the eyelets and tied on top – a ‘point’. Similar method could also be used to fasten doublets in front. Holding up hose and later britches by attaching them to a doublet survived until about the mid 17th century – at the end, these were mainly a decorative item, often fashioned from silk ribbons and sporting pretty bows.

points in doublet



Points attaching a sleeve in lave medieval gown


marie of burgundy

Ornamental points on this boy’s gown and on a grown man’s doublet


Jan van Bijlert (1597-1671)


King Charles I (1600–1649)

Fabric ties – one of the easiest methods and a popular one too – mostly used on shifts, (necks and sleeves), coifs, bodices (early Tudor gowns), ruffs, collars, 18th century petticoats and gowns (again, often purely a decorative function), regency gowns (apron fronted ones), Victorian bustles (for tying a bustle pad around the cage), camisoles, hats, or as ties holding up the drape of bustled skirts, etc.

ties on boy’s shirt.


boyshirt1540s Bath museum

ties on bodice of Cecilia Heron, worn without placard


Cecilia Heron, Holbain

buffcoat, 17th century


german buff coat. Lederkoller

ties on the overgown


lady knollys 1562

drop-fronted gowns (more pictures of the pink ones



 Drawstring – most likely used in medieval times for braes – but it seems there is no evidence of it being used in chemises.  Chemises laced at the neck are also a L.A.R.P.  invention it seems, (sorry Errol Flynn!  ) -There are chemises aplenty gathered into a narrow band of fabric, but somehow almost no evidence of drawstring being used in garments until the 19th century (in regency necklines, transitional stays cups, ruching of skirts etc).

inside Victorian bodice, drawstring is used to make the neckline smug


drawstring used to make the neck fit better

3. Pins.

Simple and a relatively inexpensive way to temporarily connect two bits of fabric, pins were used for ages. Veils were pinned to barbettes and wimples, sleeves were pinned to the shoulder-straps of gowns and kirtles. In the 16th century gown placards were pinned at the sides to the main gowns; in Stuart times collars were sometimes pinned to bodices (and having worn a big collar in windy weather I can understand how this works perfectly!) n the 18th century there is some evidence that the gown fronts (robes anglaise and polonaise) were sometimes closed in front using pins (Serena’s article). Hat pins were especially popular in the 18 and 19th century when fashionable headwear was pinned securely to one’s wig, hairpiece or simply to hair to stop it being blown away!

sleeves pinned to the kirtle


rogier van der weydan, c[2]. 1450


For some mysterious reason buttons appeared relatively late on the scene. They seem to have developed from decoratively applied beads before being seen as functional buttons. As a form of decoration they have been known for millennia, with buttons used as functional items only appearing on the scene in the 9th century (Hungary), some earlier evidence of them being used paired with buttonholes can be found in the 13th century ( Germany)


buttoned curcoat13cent

Buttons soon became all the rage, and the 14th century close-fitting garments sport them on front closures and sleeves, with the rule being ‘the more the better’…  needless to say, their popularity has thrived over the ages and many forms have been developed – in medieval times metal shank buttons were popular, as were cloth buttons or cloth covered round/dome buttons. Tudor and Stuart times see a profusion of lavishly decorated ball buttons, covered with silk or linen thread, often sporting additional decoration with metallic threads. The 18th century is famed for its ornamental buttons – elaborately embroidered, wrapped or covered buttons are everywhere, reaching quite a size by the end of the 18th century.   Flat buttons with holes are a relatively new invention, though.  I am by no means a button expert – for more info on deaths-head buttons, Dorset buttons, embroidered, covered etc, I believe Gina B is the person to ask – and her DVD’s are fantastic if you fancy making some on your own!

The buttonholes, the bane of every costumier nowadays, were carefully handstitched with a strong thread – and in later centuries often corded for strength.


micheal pacher, stoning of st stephen


Charles do Blois pourpoint , 14cent_13


doublet VAM


doublet buttons vam


buttons on a casssaque. Portrait of Jan Six by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn c1654


1710, vam


buttons on a redingote 1790f, lacma


.Waistcoat ca. 1780-1800 via The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Buttons on late victorian bodice

Together with thongs , horn toggles are a form of a button really and were used predominantly on  medieval shoes (especially Viking origin) and seem to be used in the northern more primitive cultures, ( Siberian tribes, Inuit, etc ). Mysteriously they seem to almost disappear ( apart from toggle like ornaments used on Tudor garments) for centuries from the high fashion, with toggles on shoes being discarded – buckles, lacing and buttons being used in later centuries.


Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543)_ Portrait of Margaret Wyatt, Lady Lee 1540

Hooks and eyes.

I believe  a simple Winningas or dress hook was the predecessor of the functional hooks and eyes closure –  Winnegas hook being a simple hook placed at the end of the binding wrapped around  Anglo-Saxon calves – the hook simply caught the woven braid easily making sure the bindings stayed in place.


.Saxon-dress-hook-tag UK Detector Finds Database Ref. No. 1912

Proper hooks and eyes (or as they seem to be known before the end of the 17th century, crochet and loop) were used on late medieval garments to close collars, livery coats and gowns – as fabrics with patterns were popular in the second half of the 15th century, a closure that would not disturb those patterns was  especially welcome!


Jean Fouquet. Portrait of the Ferrara Court Jester Gonella. c. 1442.

Later they were used to close jerkins, gowns, jackets, bodices – and are still in use today, predominantly on lingerie items.


hooks on a late Victorian bodice

The hooks were also used on the corsets, as a means of preventing the petticoat and skirts to ride up!


hook on corset, VAM

Split Busks:

Invented by a French Corsetier, Jean-Julien Josselin in 1829 they became extremely popular after the slot and stud closure was patented by Joseph Cooper in 1848.  The spit busk took over the corsetry as it provided two things – rigid structure and a front closure that made it so much easier for the corset to be put on and removed by the wearer. Various form developed over the decades, including narrow, wide, conical and spoon busks. To my knowledge they were never used in any other item of clothing apart from corsets (well, historically speaking – 21st century excluded here)


spoon busk, 1883, VAM


corset with busk, lacing and studs, VAMs

Mark that the above picture shows press studs too – there were a recent invention as well and they were mainly used as supplementary means for skirts closures.


press studs on a Teens bodice – to secure the sleeve. the tony buttons are only a decoration here:-)

Well, and there you have it – a brief outline or what was worn and when. By no means encompassing all the wealth of possible closures but at least a start!  🙂


Fashion in detail, VAM, all 3 books…

Janet Arnold – all the books….

Medieval Tailor’s Assistant

The  Tudor Tailor books –

19 thoughts on “Fastenings Across the Ages

  1. Fabulous post! I especially love the painting of the gentleman with hooks and eyes on his collar. So many people are convinced that hooks and eyes are a Victorian invention! Up until now, I had relyed on the great lumps of hooks and eyes found fused together from the Great Fire as extant proof, but now I have this lovely painting, too! Do you know the title?

  2. That’s very informative, thank you for the effort! Just one hint: On the 1725 Française that’s not a fastening. Just decorative gold cord laid across the stomacher. You can see that at the lower end of the stomacher. The robe itself is probebly fastened with pins. Too bad there are no visuals (that I know of) of 18th century fastening of garments with pins.

    • thanks! I did state that it was decorative, will make it cleared on the picture as well, good point! the back lacing, under the pleats, is theoretically not a fastening really, but means of regulating fit/adjustment. so maybe needs some clarification!

  3. Pingback: The most common mistakes in historical costuming/re-enactment – and how to avoid them! | A Damsel in This Dress

  4. What about Buttons, Zippers, Velcro? Or is that too modern? I would have loved to see this come to the current times

    • Regarding zippers, Gideon Sundback refined and earlier design from the 1890s that was never actually marketed and created what we would now recognise as a Zip. This was jn December 1913. However, we still don’t really see it being used commercially till 1917 and even then its not being used on clothes. Instead its used on tobacco pouches, rubber boots/galoshes and leather jackets only (from 1925).
      In the 1930s, there was a push to encourage zips to be used as a practical form of fastening on children’s clothing. It was suggested that it would enable children to learn to dress themselves more quickly using a zip. It wasn’t long then for the zip to be used in men’s trouser fly (1937) and not long after they are in ladies clothing.
      So, for authenticity, zips should not be used on normal daily clothing until 1920s (children); late 1930s ( men’s trousers) and women’s wear from end ot 1930s onwards.

      • Bess Thank you very much for this informative post. I am in search in order to purchase a “Zip” made in the early 1900’s preferably no later than 1920. If you have any suggestions I am all eyes and ears. Best Regards

    • Rgarding velcro….this is very modern. Invented in the late 1940s, patented in 1955 and not in commercial manufacture till late 1950s. Realistically its not being used in daily wear till probably the mid 1960s.

  5. Thank you SO MUCH for this post. Some of this I knew and some was new but I particularly loved how you provided a visual reference for each example. Fantastic scholarship!

  6. What a fabulous reference piece! I was needing to ‘Date’ a garment…I’m selling and ended up with an amazing & enjoyable “History Lesson” 🙂

    Thank You,
    Tami Lupa – Echo’s Vintage

  7. Great post. I think of the corset I have. It is laced in the back and goes really tight however on the front there’s more up to date metal eye link things that I find harder to get up then the lasses

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