Mudlarking: Keep It Together! Dress Fasteners and Cufflinks

By Jason Sandy

cufflinks found in river thames

Various cufflinks found in the River Thames by mudlarks, Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS )/ Nick Stevens.

Over the centuries, people have used toggles, clasps, dress fasteners, hooked tags, and cufflinks to hold their clothing in place. Not only were they practical, utilitarian items, they were highly decorated, ornate fashion accessories which were worn to show off and attract attention. They also displayed one’s wealth and social status. These beautiful works of art tell the story of fashion and culture throughout the ages in Britain.

fasteners from historic london

Left to right: Celtic button and loop fastener, Jason Davey. Tudor dress fastener found in the River Thames, Jason Sandy. Historic painting of Tudor woman wearing dress fasteners, Holbein the Younger, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Since the Iron Age, toggles and fasteners have been used to literally keep things together. Mudlark Jason Davey found a decorative Celtic button and loop fastener (above left), which has been dated to the 1st century BC. Although the fastener is small, it is a mini-masterpiece of Celtic art. Both discs are cast with abstract motifs comprised of recessed circular and abstract shapes interspersed with lunate symbols which are typical of Celtic design. The swirling motif is similar to the decoration on Celtic mirrors from the Iron Age. This button and loop fastener was probably used to secure a cloak or some other garment in place.

In the 16th century, it was very fashionable to wear decorated dress fasteners (above center), hooked tags, and chatelaines. The Tudors wore them in prominent positions on their clothes so the ornate designs were visible. Although they are intricate and beautiful fashion accessories, the fasteners were used for a variety of utilitarian purposes, mainly to fix clothing and stockings in place. Tudor women often wore a large neck scarf, and hook fasteners were used to secure the scarf to the garment below. They were also used in pairs to keep a woman’s long dress out of the mud as she walked through the filthy streets of London (above right). 

antique dress hooks

Top to bottom, left to right: Tudor dress hooks found by Mark Paros, Nick Stevens and others, PAS/Nick Stevens. Ornate Tudor dress hook, PAS. Tudor hooked tags, Graham duHeaume/Jason Sandy.Hooked tag with Christian monogram, PAS.

Demonstrating the creativity of the Tudor craftsmen, dress fasteners were formed in a wide variety of styles and shapes. Produced by casting molten brass into a carved mold, they were beautifully decorated with openwork patterns, floral designs, abstract geometrical motifs, religious symbols, hearts, animals, and faces. The openwork designs consisted of interwoven lines and circles within a central pattern. Mudlarks have found many of these beautiful works of Tudor art (above, top row).

One of the nicest dress hooks found in the River Thames (above, second row, left) has an ornate, openwork design. The brass clasp has a rectangular bar at the top with a horizontal slot where the fabric would have been attached to the fastener. Within the openwork design, there are three pierced trefoils in a row above a horizontal ridge with a foliate pattern below.

Mudlark Graham duHeaume and I have also found beautiful Tudor hooked tags with ornate openwork patterns (above, second row, center) dating to the 16th century. They are formed with three distinct features—a rectangular loop at the top, central body with openwork pattern, and projecting hook from the base. The body is decorated with a pinecone above a V-shaped molded design in the center. Playful, perforated circles form the edges of the fastener and create a striking appearance.

A few years ago, mudlark Monika Buttling-Smith discovered a rare, hooked tag with the letters “ihs” (above, second row, right) dating to AD 1500–1600. The dress hook has a circular disc in the center with an integral, trapezoidal lug at the top for securing the fabric. The circular plate has molded decoration within a thick, ribbed border from which the tapering hook projects downwards. The Christogram “ihs” is a monogram symbolizing Jesus Christ. Religion played an important role in the lives of Londoners in the 16th century. The Church of England was formally founded in 1534 when King Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic Church when its leaders refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. 

fancy dress fasteners antique england

Ornate, domed dress fasteners, PAS/Graham duHeaume.

There were many different styles of Tudor dress fasteners. One of the most beautiful types is formed from three ornate, hemispherical domes at the top with a hook projecting from the base. Several mudlarks have found this type of fastener (above). One of them is a dress hook with a scalloped-edged, trefoil-shaped backplate and three domed bosses decorated with a filigree, twisted rope design (below). Each boss has a large annulet encircling a trefoil of smaller annulets. Where the hook is attached to the main body, there is a maker’s mark “G. Reed.” This silver gilt fastener would have been worn by a very wealthy Tudor woman in the 16th century.

antique dress fasteners from london

Domed fastener with filigree design, PAS.

Another type of Tudor fastener was used to secure two pieces of fabric together with a horizontal bar and two hooks on either side (below left). I have found several of these brass fasteners, which were made inexpensively by tightly winding a thin gauge wire around the thick, sharp hooks (below center). The body formed by thinner wire was hammered flat to secure the large hooks in place. Four thin, wire loops at each corner create a simple decoration for this utilitarian fastener. The foreboding hooks are very sharp and must have been uncomfortable to wear, especially if they punctured through the fabric or leather and pierced the skin. Perhaps circular, metal mounts were fixed to the fabric through which the hooks were secured to prevent them from ripping through the fabric.

tudor dress hook

Tudor hooked fastener worn by Jason’s daughter, ominous hooked fasteners, Jason Sandy. Elaborate fastener decorated with flower, Graham duHeaume.

Several years ago, Graham duHeaume found a beautiful example of this type of fastener (above). Based on the sturdy construction and ornate design, this fastener could have been worn by a wealthy person. This impressive fastener is decorated with a three-dimensional Tudor rose in the center with three large hooks projecting from three rings on both sides and bottom. It would have been used to secure three pieces of fabric together.

tudor chatelaine and ear wax scoop

Tudor chatelaines found by Florrie Evans and Peter Olivant, Florrie Evans/PAS. Chatelaine with chain and ear scoop, Florrie Evans.

Chatelaines are another type of fastener formed with a hooked tag and spiraled brass coils bound together with thin, wound wire (above right). Not only are chatelaines beautiful works of art, they served a very functional purpose. They were decorative hooks, which Tudor women slipped over the waistband of their dresses. From the various coiled scrolls, small chains were attached from which useful, everyday items such as keys, thimble cases, pin cases, and tweezers were suspended.

Mudlark Florrie Evans has attached a chain connected to a Tudor ear scoop (for removing ear wax) to illustrate how a chatelaine was used in the 16th century (above left).

Some of the most ornate and coveted artifacts found on the Thames foreshore are 18th century brass cufflinks which were decorated with a vast array of designs such as crowns, anchors, balloons, floral patterns, and famous personalities such as kings, queens, and military heroes. Many of the cufflinks are missing the other half which most likely indicates how the cufflink was accidentally lost.

Although the first cufflinks appeared in the 1600s, they did not become common until the 18th century. Their development is closely related to the changing fashion in men’s shirt designs. Before the 17th century, shirt sleeves were simply tied at the cuff with a ribbon. With the introduction of the French cuff in the mid-1600s, cufflinks served a practical purpose of holding the cuffs together. Cufflinks quickly became a popular fashion accessory and object of personal adornment for sophisticated Georgian gentlemen.

The ornate designs of the cufflinks which are found on the Thames foreshore are an insight into men’s fashion during the age of elegance in Georgian and Victorian times. Each set of cufflinks tells a unique story about the person who wore them centuries ago. Many of the cufflinks found in the Thames are simple and indicate that they served a very utilitarian purpose or were owned by a middle-class man who was not able to afford the more extravagant cufflinks. But, some cufflinks were highly decorated, one-off pieces which could have been made by a jeweler for a specific client or commemorative event.

antique cufflinks london england

Cufflinks with hot air balloon, PAS. Mr. Punch cufflinks, PAS.

While mudlarking in London, Mark Jennings found an unusual pair of oval-shaped, brass cufflinks (above left) dating to 1783–1800. A hot air balloon carrying a gondola boat with four ropes is depicted on the cufflinks. Two figures wearing tricorne hats are shown facing each other inside the boat decorated with guidon flags on either side. A lattice work net surrounds the inflated balloon and is connected to a circular ring below the balloon with a series of thick ropes. 

The French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier developed a hot air balloon in Annonay, France, and undertook the first unmanned flight in September 1783, which lasted only 10 minutes. The first balloon flight with human passengers was conducted in Paris in November 1783. Two years later in 1785, Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English Channel in a hot air balloon and landed in England for the first time. Perhaps these cufflinks were made to commemorate this event and celebrate this feat of 18th century engineering.

A few years ago, mudlark Marie-Louise Plum found an unusual pair of cufflinks decorated with a comical portrait (above right). “When mudlarking, every now and again, you’ll have a happy moment of something literally washing up at your feet,” said Marie-Louise. “This cufflink was found that way, a proper serendipitous find. It is one of my favorite River Thames finds.” According to the Museum of London, the brass cufflink dates to 1750–1800 and portrays a caricature bust in the style of Mr. Punch. Often associated with British culture, “Punch and Judy” is a traditional puppet show featuring Mr. Punch and his wife Judy. Performed typically in a red and white stripped, portable booth, the comical show consists of a sequence of short scenes featuring Mr. Punch clowning around with another character who falls victim to his slapstick comedy. Based on a 16th century Italian precedent, the figure of Mr. Punch made his first recorded appearance in Britain in 1662. Even today, Punch and Judy puppet shows are still popular among British children.

queen anne cufflink found by london mudlark

Cufflink with bust of Queen Anne, Jason Sandy.

Although they are relatively rare, several mudlarks have found cufflinks depicting the bust of Queen Anne (facing page, bottom). She is easily recognizable because of her plump face and hair styled in a bun. Despite 17 pregnancies, she never produced an heir and was the last monarch in the House of Stuart. Nevertheless, she was a well-respected queen in the early 18th century, and these cufflinks attest to her popularity at that time.

romantic antique cufflinks

Cufflink with romantic couple, PAS. Admiral Hood cufflinks, PAS.

Another interesting circular pair of brass cufflinks (above left) depicts a couple locked in a romantic embrace and kissing. The words “LOVE FOR L(OVE)” appear on either side of the two figures. The perimeter is decorated with a twisted rope design. Based on the imagery and words on the cufflinks, they could have been a gift of love which was worn to show one’s affection and relationship status. 

Dating to AD 1780–1796, a pair of cufflinks (above right) was engraved with a bust representing Admiral Samuel Hood or his brother Admiral Alexander Hood. The profile of Admiral Hood faces right with the words “AD HOOD” below. Both Hood brothers became vice admirals in the British navy. Samuel Hood became a full admiral in 1794 and served during the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolutionary War. During the outbreak of the French Revolutionary War, Hood was the commander in chief of the British Navy in the Mediterranean. Georgian gentlemen probably wore cufflinks depicting Hood because he was an accomplished admiral and hero whom they admired.

antique cufflinks with angel and crown

Cufflinks with cherubs and crown, PAS. Gold cufflinks with flower design, Nick Stevens.

Mudlark Mike Walker (aptly nicknamed “Cuffs”) has found many beautiful cufflinks in the Thames. One of the best pairs (above left) is made of shiny brass which would have originally glistened like gold in the sunlight. The cufflinks are decorated with two cherubs holding a large, articulated crown above a vessel containing two heart shaped flowers. Although the symbolism of the decoration remains a mystery, we can assume a man of distinction wore these cufflinks judging by the delicate design and workmanship.

One of the most valuable pairs of cufflinks from the Thames (above right) was found by mudlark Nick Stevens. They are made of real gold and hand-engraved with a flower motif in the center. The cufflinks are also decorated with a foliate design around the perimeter and vertical, inscribed lines surrounding the flower. Connected by an S-shaped loop on the back, these gold cufflinks were surely worn by a wealthy aristocrat or nobleman in the 18th century.

These wonderfully ornate fasteners and cufflinks found in the Thames provide a unique insight into popular fashions and social history centuries ago in London. Although they served a practical purpose, they are beautiful works of art which were worn to impress onlookers and display one’s wealth and social status. 

Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore requires a permit. Learn about rules for mudlarking in London ›

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2021 issue.

For more about cufflinks set with colorful, glass-paste stones, read Mudlarking: Colored Glass & Georgian Bling.

Learn more about mudlarking


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