Death Head Buttons: Pirates, Posion, and Gentlemen

Deadly Buttons?! Well, not really…

One of the most prominent accessories in 18th century fashion was the death head button. Sounds exceptionally morbid and creepy, doesn’t it? The buttons themselves, however, are pretty, well, pretty!

Detail of Red Wool Coat with Death Head Buttons, circa 1780-1789

Italian Stomacher with Death Head Buttons, circa 1760-1780

Death head buttons are actually just wooden buttons wrapped with colorful thread in a cross or X design. They don’t really seem all that deadly, especially in adorable bubble-gum pink. So how did they get their name?

The skull and crossbones is now synonymous with pirates and poison, but in the 18th century and before, it was used as a memento mori, a reminder that life is short and should be lived as well as possible. The term “death head” comes from the German word Totenkopf, which literally translates to “dead man’s head.” While it was used by pirates, the Jolly Roger was also a popular motif for gravestones and mourning jewelry like Stuart Crystals.

Stuart Crystal Ring with Skull and Crossbones Motif, circa 1728

So…why death’s head buttons? It’s simple, actually. The crisscross design used to weave the button looks like the crossed bones under the skull.

Death head buttons can be made in a variety of color patterns and style, from plain single-crosses in a single color to star patterns in multiple colors. They were especially popular for men’s coats, but ladies’ riding habits (often inspired by military uniforms) commonly had death head buttons on the sleeves, bodice, and/or stomacher.

Lady’s Riding Coat with Death Head Buttoned Sleeves, circa 1750-1759

Want to make your own? Check out these helpful resources:

Wood Button Forms from Wooded Hamlet Designs

Death Head Buttons, Their Use and Construction” by By Norman H. Fuss

Death Head Button: First Attempt” at A Fashionable Frolic