Many years ago I bought a scrumptious red pinwale corduroy dress with a faux waistcoat front, a super A line skirt and generous pockets (hooray!). It closed down the front (fine) with small brown wooden buttons (not fine). What was the manufacturer thinking? Small brown wooden buttons on a brown suede jacket = fabulous, warm, organic; peanut butter and jelly (yummy). Small brown wooden buttons on a red corduroy dress = discordant, counterintuitive; fingernails on chalkboard; peanut butter and spaghetti (yucky). The dress said boutique, but the buttons said discount store. And the buttons won.
Think George Clooney with bad teeth. There's so much to the total George Clooney package (so to speak), but if he had even slightly irregular teeth, no one would notice his great face or his acting or his subtle expressions or his three hundred dollar haircut or the sophisticated cut of his tux. They'd all be moaning ad nauseum about his teeth. Buttons have the same power.
To save the dress, I took it to Tender Buttons, the eccentric grandmother of all button shops, where I found red square mother of pearl buttons. The red was sharp, like the red of the corduroy, and the angles of the buttons complemented the angular cut of the dress. I had to get twelve of them (eight for the button-down front, two for the cuffs and two spares), and they set me back about $25, but once I'd finished changing the buttons, that dress said BOUTIQUE in a saucy French accent.
The same applies that well loved favorite, the plain white button down shirt. Some of my favorite designers make a standard white cotton shirt with wonderful materials and beautiful lines, and then attach white plastic buttons as if people like me weren't closely inspecting the total package. I'll buy the shirt, but I'll definitely replace the buttons.
During the winter, I passed a street stall in Soho selling finger puppets. The ones I was most drawn to - electric blue with bits of black, white and orange - turned out to be Cookie Monster. It was love at first sight, but how does a woman of grandmotherly age buy finger puppets if she has no grandchildren? My friends, neighbors, relatives and coworkers would probably worry about me if I used them in their intended manner. So I bought seven and made button covers out of them - five for the shirt front, and two for cuff links. In New York, a serious town that dresses seriously, a wink and a nod to office apparel can be a good thing if you think you can get away with it. (In the photo above, Jean and I and the Cookie Monster quints celebrate the holiday season at Brigitte's - then on Crosby Street, now at that historic beauty, The Ansonia.)
Oh, and a shirt tip: when you buy your standard button down white shirt, put the collar up when you try it on, and see if you like the way it frames your face. If you do, your shirt can do double duty. Day look: collar down, top buttons open; evening look: collar up, all buttons closed.
Valerie's black wool and leather suit is by Eleanor P Brenner (a thrift shop find), white shirt by Josephine Chaus (Sym's), navy blue wool and velvet hat from the flea market. Cookie Monsters might be alpaca. Jean is wearing a Dutch-designed high-collared fleece jacket by Boris Industries from a boutique in Utrecht, an Issey Miyake skirt, Gucci glasses and a grey wool vintage hat from Mistress Mine in the East Village.