Off the cuff: a brief history of cufflinks
‘ A decorative fastener worn by men or women to fasten the two sides of the cuff on a dress shirt or blouse.
Cufflinks are designed only for use with link cuffs (also known as French Cuffs or double cuffs), which have buttonholes on both sides but no buttons. These may be either single or double-length (“French”) cuffs, and may be worn either “kissing,” with the ends pinched together, or “barrel-style,” with one end overlapping the other. Kissing cuffs are usually preferred.’
Most men have at least one pair of cufflinks lurking in their bedside drawer. Though there are cufflink aficionados out there who could easily wear a different pair every day of the year.
They’re passed down from father to son, bought by a groom as a gift for his best man and groomsmen, and are a favoured romantic gift.
Indeed, back in 1935, when the affair between the American divorcee Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII was still a secret, Mrs Simpson presented her lover with a set of diamond cufflinks inscribed with the exhortation ‘Hold Tight’. It barely gets more romantic than that: arguably the greatest and certainly the most scandalous romance of the 20th century.
As much variety and creativity goes into the design of cufflinks as into any other form of jewellery. Along with tie pins and clips, cufflinks are arguably one of the few ways that men can legitimately both adorn themselves and express their hobbies and interests in jewellery form.
Simon Webb, Wiltshire-based bespoke, artisan pen and cufflink maker makes his from all manner of beautiful woods. But how did the cufflink come into being?
Evolution and revolution
The evolution of this functional accessory that can be elegant, novelty, classy or flashy is closely aligned with the history of men’s shirts. And it was the Industrial revolution that made possible their mass production, and therefore, accessibility to everyone.
In the beginning
Almost from back when Noah was engaged in his ship-building enterprises men have worn shirt-like garments.
Yes, the cut and construction have changed over the centuries but the basic shape remains unchanged: a front opening tunic, with long or short sleeves and a collar of some sort.
Worn next to the skin and washable the shirt helped to prevent soiling of outer layers from close contact with the body. It also formed a protective barrier between the skin and rougher, heavier outer garments by extending beyond it at the neck and wrists. Areas where chafing was most likely to occur.
From the late Middle Ages, the visible areas of the shirt became the focus of male fashion and started to complement the main outer garment with frills and embroidery. A precursor to the cuff as we know it first appeared in the early 1500s.
But, it was in the 17th century that the fancy shirt ruffles evolved into cuffs and neck ruffs were modified to become a recognisable shirt collar.
Before all that though, according to The Chap Magazine, graves of our Germanic ancestors (having migrated to our shores in the 5th & 6th centuries A.D.) have yielded an interesting cufflink forerunner:
‘They made much use of decorated jewellery, both for the purposes of show and function. In eastern England, we find a particular item known as a “wrist-clasp”: pairs of these, usually in gilded bronze with ornamental design, were sewn to cuffs and clipped together so as to hold the folds of the sleeve tight.
However, these ancient symbols of civility were not worn by Anglo-Saxon gentlemen but by the ladies, who can thus take credit for starting a trend which in later centuries has come to embody gentlemanly style.’
Well done ladies. Leaders of the pack in all things sartorial!
But back to the 17th century:
These early wristbands or cuffs had a small opening that was fastened together with thin ribbon or string. A similar fastening used to close the shirt collar was the forerunner of the cravat.
Although having a garment that would be recognizable to modern man as a shirt it nevertheless took men sometime to realize that the wristband closing was a missed opportunity for flaunting wealth. Even Louis XIV, a man not known for being modest and minimalist in anything, probably dressed his shirtsleeves with nothing more ostentatious than coloured strings.
Although towards the end of Louis XIV’s reign dedicated followers of fashion began to wear pair of identical or similar buttons joined by a short chain, cuff strings were worn until the early 19th century.
According to this article from Office-dress-shirts.com one of the earliest references to what we’d now recognize as cufflinks was made in a 1684 edition of the London Gazette. The publication referred to a pair of cuff buttons set with diamonds. In 1686 the same journal also described a pair of gold enamelled cuff buttons.
The article goes on to suggest that, despite this early appearance of cufflinks, the taste for elaborate wrist ruffles prevailed for some time to come.
It appears that it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that the cufflink came into its own when it was out with Dandyish ruffles and in with minimal, functional sleeves. This transition from frills to cuffs was aided by the arrival of the French Cuff – known also as the Double Cuff. Or, as the French themselves called it, the poignet mousquetaire – the musketeer’s cuff.
Of course cufflink use was, in the first instance, confined to the upper echelons of society. The working classes had not the revenue for such symbols of sartorial elegance. But this situation changed with the Industrial Revolution and the development of electroplating processes on precious metal that ‘allowed the masses to adorn their cuffs in a way that had formerly been beyond their means.’
Across the pond meanwhile, during the 1880s, with the introduction of removable starched collars and cuffs, one George Krementz patented a device adapted from a Civil War cartridge shell-making machine. It produced one-piece collar buttons and cufflinks.
As a result almost every major business in the first half of the 20th century commissioned cufflinks for advertising purposes for corporate gifts and incentives.
To come up to the present day we return to The Chap Magazine:
‘The Roaring 20s were probably the height of cuff-link invention. Manufacturers created a variety of devices and designs to do one simple thing: permit a fellow to insert and remove his cufflinks with a minimum of difficulty and a maximum of security. In the 1950s, the “stirrup” link enjoyed some popularity – a curved bar encompassing the cuff from one side to the other.
Later, the solid T-bar link was devised, still the most popular method in use today.’
NB: Along with the online references thanks also to the book ‘Cufflinks’ by Susan Jonas and Marilyn Nissenson.
So we’ve seen how the cufflink has made its way into common usage and deployment as a gift for all manner of occasions. If you’ve a cufflink lover that you’re looking to buy for and want something a little different to ‘off-the-peg’ – or should that be ‘off the cuff’? – then you might consider looking at the work of Simon Webb Artisan: http://www.simon-webb.co.uk
Based in Swindon, Wiltshire, Simon makes hand-turned wooden pens and cufflinks.
‘Simon Webb is a small artisan company creating beautiful, desirable but yet functional objects destined to be new family heirlooms.
Based in Wiltshire, the company has access to some truly special materials, making products that can be enjoyed for years and even generations to come.
Because the company is small, each item it produces, whether it be a writing instrument or an item of jewellery, is always handcrafted and is sometimes heavy with history.’