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Which Came First, Cuffs or Cuff Links?


Published October 30, 1991 in the New York Times

THE Duke of Windsor wore them. So did Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant. But Louis XIV didn't. When it came to the end of his sleeve, he probably just used a tiny piece of colored string.

What Louis XIV lacked was cuff links, and they are the subject of a lavishly illustrated book published this month by Harry N. Abrams. The book, appropriately titled "Cuff Links," follows their design from the Victorian era through Art Nouveau, the Edwardian age, Art Deco, modernism and postmodernism. The almost 200 illustrations include designs by Faberge, Cartier, Tiffany, Georg Jensen, Jean Schlumberger, Rene Lalique, Josef Hoffmann and Alexander Calder.

The authors are Susan Jonas, a researcher and picture editor at Time Inc., and Marilyn Nissenson, a writer and producer of television documentaries. Cuff links, they said, became a bit of an obsession to them.

"Right from the beginning, cuff links leaped up at us," Ms. Jonas said, pointing to more than 600 photographs lying on a table in her living room. "Every man we spoke to said, 'I have 20,' or 'I have 200.' "

Ms. Nissenson and Ms. Jonas said that when they began their research, they knew practically nothing about the history of their subject. And they were surprised to find out that hardly anyone else did either.

"Partway through the search we discovered that we were actually doing something no one had ever done before," Ms. Nissenson said. "No one had ever written a book on cuff links. So we became determined to document as many of the great designers as we could."

They started by checking museums, costume exhibits and design collections in the United States and Europe, "but it turned out there was very little information there," Ms. Jonas said.

"We were obsessed with sleeves," Ms. Nissenson said about their museum explorations. But, she said, there was usually nothing in the cuffs.

The vast majority of material turned out to be in private hands. And they found the major collections and collectors largely by word of mouth.

The authors also discovered that cuff links have not been around for a very long time. "We assumed that they went back to the Etruscan period," Ms. Nissenson said. "We assumed that in every portrait we had seen while studying art history, the men were wearing cuff links. And then of course we realized that the Etruscans didn't wear shirts."

The ancient Chinese didn't wear shirts as we know them, she said. And though cuff links were worn by a few elegant Europeans in the late 17th century and in the 18th century, they are really a byproduct of 19th-century mass production, a byproduct of shirt design. By the 19th century the bourgeois and working classes were large enough to sustain a demand for a manufactured product.

The evolution of cuff links, therefore, was determined by the history of the shirt. Men have worn shirtlike garments since woven fabric was invented in the fifth millennium B.C. But for most of history, the shirt has been considered an undergarment, worn next to the skin to prevent outer garments from being soiled by close contact with the body. Public exposure of the shirt sleeves was for a long time considered a gross breach of etiquette.

It wasn't until the early 1500's that tiny ruffles, the first ancestors of cuffs, began to appear at the wristbands. As these evolved, men would put strings or narrow ribbons through holes in the wristbands to keep their sleeves closed.

It took men a long time to connect their wristbands with jewelry. Louis XIV, for instance, loved jewelry; he had one matched set of 104 diamond buttons and 48 diamond studs. But he still had strings in his sleeves.

In the last years of Louis's reign, Ms. Nissenson said, some of the more fashionable men began to use pairs of identical or similar buttons, joined by a little chain, to fasten their sleeves. In 18th-century Europe, the buttons often contained painted miniatures, including portraits of loved ones or well-known figures.

In the mid-19th century, the modern shirt-sleeve cuff evolved. Because of starch, the cuffs were almost always stiff. "Starch is the key," said Ms. Jonas. "If you've got a stiff cuff, it's very hard to get a simple button through it. You need a more elaborate mechanism."

Starch was popular because it heightened the formality of dress the Victorians loved. So the manufacturers vied to create a sleeve fastener that was easier to use than a button. The answer was usually a metal chain or link fastener -- the cuff link.

From the mid-19th century on, almost everyone in the middle and upper classes wore cuff links. Very few shirts were made with an attached button. "Cuff links were very common for women, too," said Ms. Jonas. "Gibson Girls, suffragists and clerks wore them. Cooks like Mrs. Bridges on 'Upstairs, Downstairs' used cuff links in their starched shirts."

It was the Duke of Windsor, a devotee of cuff links, who unwittingly helped bring about their decline. The Duke greatly influenced male fashion, Ms. Jonas said, and part of his legacy was casualness. By the 1920's, the sport shirt had been created and with the return of the unstarched cuff, the links were no longer necessary. In the United States, at least, cuff links became associated largely with formal wear, both for evening and business.

But despite the cuff link's fall from popularity, Ms. Nissenson and Ms. Jonas were able to find hundreds of highly unusual examples. "We were astonished by the variety we found," said Ms. Nissenson. "In their own small way they're a piece of social and sartorial history. And men don't have a lot of other options to express their personal taste.

"Cuff links are utilitarian objects," she continued, "so the options for design are finite. They have to fit through a hole of a relatively certain size. They can't bang into things when the wearer is moving around. They have to slide into the sleeve jacket, so they can't protrude too far. And yet people are endlessly inventive."

They found cuff links with diamonds, pearls, emeralds, rubies -- all kinds of precious and semiprecious gems. They found cuff links that use human hair; cuff links made to be worn for casual sporting events; cuff links in the shape of fishing flies and fish, hunting horns and hunting dogs, racing cars and racehorses, jockey caps and horseshoes; cuff links in the shape of flowers, watch faces, hot-air balloons, anchors, owls, cats, panthers, eagles, beetles, elephants, frogs, devils, pistols, compasses, high-heeled shoes, human feet and even nuts and bolts.

The nut-and-bolt cuff links were created by the 1930's designer Paul Flato. "He had to go to a dinner party one evening," Ms. Jonas said, "and he discovered he didn't have any cuff links with him. So he found two brass nuts and bolts and put them in his cuffs. The bandleader Eddie Duchin saw them and asked for an identical pair in gold."

The idea for a book on cuff links came from Stuart E. Jacobson, the author of "The Art of Giving" (Abrams, 1987). He asked Ms. Jonas to collaborate. When Mr. Jacobson died two years ago, Ms. Jonas brought in Ms. Nissenson, a longtime friend, to continue the project.

They found many more examples of cuff links than they were able to include in the book.

And, Ms. Nissenson said, their obsession is not necessarily over. "I don't know if the world is screaming for 'Cuff Links 2,' " she said with a laugh. "But we could certainly oblige."


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