Sunday, July 1, 2012

Buttons, Buttons, Who's Got the Tender Buttons

We had been after Millicent Safro, the extraordinary owner of the extraordinary button shop, Tender Buttons, to let us interview her for Idiosyncratic Fashionistas for better part of a year. But Millicent, a woman of unflagging energy (and a woman of a certain age), was often away on business (buying and selling buttons), Jean was occasionally away on business, and Valerie was occasionally down with yet another cold. When at last all our various schedules aligned, the two of us grabbed our opportunity like gleeful children. We promised Millicent we would take as little of her time as twenty minutes, but no more than an hour. Famous last words!

Tender Buttons, which opened in 1964, is now an icon and an institution. (Inquiring minds want to know if the name Tender Buttons comes from the Gertrude Stein book. Yes, it did.) In 1991, after nearly three decades in business, Millicent and her late partner and Tender Buttons founder, Diana Epstein, published Buttons, a book on a subject they started out knowing little about, but wound up being the go-to experts for. The foreward is by artist Jim Dine, the preface is by Tom Wolfe, and the long story of Tender Buttons is filled with an eclectic assortment of other dazzling names that many readers will recognize. Even the TENDER BUTTONS sign above our heads in the opening photo was painted by artist Ray Johnson.

So it was with great excitement that we made our way to the tiny little townhouse/shop with the HUGE button landmarking its place in the universe.

In response to our opening question - whether she has favorites, Millicent had the most delightful response. She said she has "weekly favorites and daily romances". In anticipation of our visit, Millicent put together a box of some of her favorite buttons. She said that because Diana Epstein loved and collected Eskimo buttons, she continued to do the same in her memory and had amassed quite a large collection. These two adorable hand-carved seals, probably made of walrus ivory, are her favorites. We love them too.

This very rare button, a celluloid image of a '40s woman in a picture hat, is another of Millicent's favorites. Perfect choice for a member of the Red Hat Society.

This vintage set of Japanese buttons inlaid with coral, tortoiseshell, jade, mother of pearl and other materials was also among her most treasured buttons. Double click to get a better idea of the craftsmanship involved in these.

A set of European buttons (possibly Austrian), another of Millicent's favorites, dates back to approximately the Art Nouveau period, and bears some resemblance to the Alphonse Mucha posters that were so popular around the same time.

We, of course, had favorites of our own.

Jean picked out this card of bakelite buttons. You can decide whether they are leaves or spades. When this posting hits, Jean will be in Vegas, so let's hope they bring her luck!

Jean's all-time favorite -- dice -- looked great as buttons. They've been beveled, to give the illusion of three dimensionality.

This was Valerie's favorite out of Millicent's collection of favorites.

Some of you will undoubtedly be asking why. Here's why:

Doesn't this raise all sorts of questions? Like - was it a traveling salesman's sample extension arm that someone made into a button? Was it something a metalsmith or engineer made for his wife (or himself)? Did it originally have an entirely different use, becoming a button only later in its life, in an early example of repurposing? Did it have mates?

And here are Valerie's alltime favorites - bone buttons with hares in samurai attire, which she bought at Tender Buttons years ago. She has never used them, and probably never will, but using them or not is not the point. They are always a joy to look at.

This coat started out with an awful brass button, but got a new lease on life when the brass button was replaced with a Tender Buttons bone button in black and white stripes.

Almost everything in the store is carefully organized in small brown boxes of identical size and shape. An example of the actual button contained inside is fastened to the front of the box, with a neatly hand written description and a price, so clients who know what they want can work fairly independently and efficiently. Most buttons are sorted by color or by material, so someone wanting a basic black plastic button, a multicolored mother of pearl button and a brass button can find varieties of all three in just a few moments. (And all without index cards or computers!)

We both loved the City Mouse and the Country Mouse.

These plastic Mickey Mouse buttons are colorful and quirky, and on the right outfit could be "killah". We also found the old style Mickey Mouse in this shop that has everything.

If you saw our posting on the Schiaparelli / Prada show at the Met, you might remember the aerialist buttons on the pink jacket. We asked Millicent if copies had ever been made of those or other famous Schiap buttons. She was uncertain whether there were copies (wouldn't it be great if there were?!), but instead she was able to show us these:

Holy cow! The top buttons are fishing hooks with flies; the bottom are jewel-like buttons fashioned from ceramics. Quintessential Schiaparelli - whimsical, tongue-in-cheek, unique.

Delicately carved frogs made from bone are textured and colored. Some of the boxes have notations like "our own design", or "copy of a 1930s button", or "vintage '60s", adding to their flavor and educating the client at the same time.

This tiny African turtle head (smaller than a dime) is beautifully crafted. His little pointy, curved nose is adorable and his expression? Priceless!

Buttons that need careful treatment or come in limited sets are fastened to a cardboard backing. This card contains a wide assortment of buttons, from cowboy boots to fruits, an anchor, a star, black cats, a clown and a squirrel.

The shop has buttons on practically any theme or in any shape. What if you were dating an author? Wouldn't you love to give him or her a typewriter?

This selection has a school house theme, with classroom items and toys. (Valerie thinks she saw it in the window display when the shop did a back to school theme.)

This pastel plastic alphabet would look great in a frame or sewn onto a jacket or needlepoint.

Most of the buttons in the "Sin Theme" card are bakelite. If cigarettes and booze were considered sinful back then, we wonder what people would make of society today? We, of course, love the black and white Martini button, but the matches are also wonderful - each match is individually cut, not just painted.

But if we've given you the impression that Tender Buttons has only novelty items, that's just because we're so taken with the unusual designs at a time when the fashion market is kind of lacking in, well, fashion. And style. We also found these simple, tiny purple square buttons. Deceptively understated, they would look spectacular on a plain white shirt.

We also saw a number of buttons with famous faces on them.

This portrait of JFK and Jackie would look great at the collar of a shirt and would be a conversation starter. Millicent also showed us an Amelia Earhart button, and we found three buttons with each of the Three Stooges on them.

And raise your hand if you're old enough to remember garter buttons. Here are just two of a number in Millicent's collection. The 1920s policeman on the left issues a stern warning. The flapper on the right (issuing an invitation?) is none other than Betty Boop. Her ribbon blocks her name printed on the card.

We've taken several of our out-of-town friends here. When Judith Boyd, The Style Crone, came to New York, we arranged to meet her at Tender Buttons. Our logic was this: the address is easy, so anyone can find it; it's a small shop, so you can't get lost in it, and if any one of the parties is late, those who wait can entertain themselves endlessly. It is the perfect spot and like no other -- unique, memorable, and full of surprises. Judith, who arrived first (big surprise!) made a purchase before we got there. She sent us the photo below of the three platform shoes she got. She was thinking more along the lines of using them as decorative accessories (possibly on a hat), and we totally agree. Buttons don't need to be restricted to button holes.

But back to our visit with Millicent.

Time flew by. We hated to leave. There was so much left to be explored! We arrived at 6:30 PM and were shocked to realize when we said our goodbyes that it was nearly 9:30 pm. And we'd only seen the tip of the iceberg! (Sooooo many photos we don't have room to show you!!)

If you're coming to the Big Apple, put Tender Buttons on your itinerary. It's the smallest museum in town, the staff is great and the gift shop is fabulous!

If you’d like to read more about what makes Tender Buttons an institution, click here.

And click here to read’s article, The Simple, Humble, Surprisingly Sexy Button, by Jude Stewart. Many thanks to Arlene W., who knew we were doing this post, for a great tip. (Read it! Among other things, Stewart says that buttons helped make clothes sexy by allowing fabric to be fitted to the body's curves. He also says "rooms of buttons" (stanze di bottoni) was once Italian slang for what we would now derisively call "the suits".)

A separate bit of button lore (which we keep hearing, but haven't substantiated, either with Millicent or the web): The custom of putting non-functional sleeve buttons on men's jackets can be traced back to Frederick the Great of Prussia, who had buttons sewn on the sleeves of his soliders' coats to keep them from wiping their noses on their sleeves. (If true, this would make sense because of the high cost of material. But then, one has to ask, why didn't he supply them with handkerchiefs?)


A jacket with stunning tails that makes eye-popping use of buttons. By the late Patrick Kelly, who knew the value of a good button.

And while we're on the subject, we mustn't forget England's Pearly Kings and Queens. For more on this century-old cultural phenomenon, click here.


  1. Thanks for the wonderful post...'love me some vintage buttons! :)
    If you're not familiar with the iconic "Native Funk and Flash", check out this blog post:
    (the last photo features a wonderful, quite masculine,
    button-embellished bag from the 70's that I adore!!) XXO-

  2. I have fond memories of Tender Buttons and I totally agree that it was the perfect place to meet. I was fascinated by the collection is this 'small museum' and plan to return on my next visit to NY. And yes, my platform shoe buttons will adorn a hat at some point! Thank you for the mention and for introducing me to this unique and special jewel. And the Patrick Kelly jacket makes me swoon.

  3. Man-oh-man! That is rad!
    Oii... definitely need to make it there, soon. Sounds wonderful and puts New York, finally, on my radar as a place to visit.

  4. Oh my goodness - I think that I have gone to heaven!!!

  5. That button coat is stunning! Wish I could have one something like that for my Button Lady character.