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The spare button represents all the ways we fail to be good consumers

“Maybe spare buttons are just aspirational, designed to make us believe something about ourselves that’s not really true anymore.”

button in a bowl Sarah Lawrence for Vox

In my snow day fantasy, I’m nestled under a blanket on the couch, my cat sleeping on top of the pile of mending. I’m digging through my box of spare buttons, picking out the correct one and serenely sewing it back onto my favorite sweater, pausing occasionally to sip from a hot mug of tea. So hygge, right?

My snow day fantasy may never come to fruition. While I do have a small box of spare buttons, I’ve only ever pulled it out to give it half a minute’s consideration of whether it’s worth keeping all these buttons rattling around in my drawer. Because I’ve never used any of them.

That’s because I’m not a particularly “good” fashion consumer. A good fashion consumer takes care of her clothing and wears each piece at least 30 times (see: #30wears on Instagram), until it’s completely worn out. I truly want to be a woman who keeps all her shirts stain-free and her sweaters rip-free long enough to use spare buttons. I imagine if I could do that, I would also be the kind of woman who cans her extra farmers market produce.

Alas, I’m not. I don’t condition my leather purses. I’ve never used starch for ironing. I don’t use lemon oil on my wooden furniture, and it shows.

That’s not for lack of trying from the women in my family. My grandmother would sew exquisite Waterford-silk party dresses for my sister and me every Christmas and birthday and had a coffee can full of spare buttons. My mom can sew a simple dress, but she usually only brings out the sewing machine for curtains. She also has a box of spare buttons. And me? I can sew a crooked line using a sewing machine. I sold my sewing machine three years ago on Craigslist, and I threw in my grandmother’s old collection of thread to sweeten the deal.

Really, the button fix is the easiest sewing project you could possibly do. There’s evidence of where the old button was located, and the holes of the new button guide your needle, while the button itself hides any sloppy work or loose threads. As long as you pick a pattern — crisscross or parallel stitches — and pull the thread tight, you literally cannot mess this up. And yet even this home ec 101 activity seems too much to ask of me and many people my age.

“I have boxes full of them and I can’t recall ever using a single one. Maybe a button for a blazer. But I also have piles of clothes to take to the tailor to get fixed, because I don’t sew,” my former sorority sister, an attorney, told me. She gets spare buttons with all the usual lawyerly workwear suspects: Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, J.Crew. And, yes, all these brands do feel a wee bit dated, don’t they?

This is such a professional woman thing to feel guilty about, possibly because this was something we used to do for our men, before we got our own jobs. Men I spoke to said they had no problem hiring someone to do fix their shirts. “I almost always throw them away,” a male friend and software engineer in Washington, DC, told me of spare buttons. “I have rarely lost buttons on my shirts. And when I have, I pay my dry cleaner, like, $10 and they usually replace it with something comparable.” Add spare buttons to the list of silly millennial expenses, after lattes and avocado toast.

You could even say that our waning passion for spare button collecting is another way millennials are ruining everything.

It really does feel wasteful to not use the spare button. It’s just more extraneous packaging, especially when brands cheap out and put a plastic button in a plastic bag attached with a plastic I-shaped swift tack. (I prefer it sewn on the interior label, but a glossy branded envelope, or — for earthier and vintage brands, a matte brown paper envelope with jute thread — is helpful so you can match it later. If you like peppy organizational projects, you could slide these envelopes into a binder with baseball card organizer sheets.)

Of course, when the average American throws away an estimated 80 pounds of clothing per year, a few extra buttons are not the problem. The problem is everything else: our busyness, our desire to never repeat an outfit on social media, the psychological and physical obsolescence of fast fashion. Clothing now only lasts for a few washes before coming apart at the seams. If you can buy a replacement for $15, what is actually the point of the spare button?

I ripped a hole in the back of my expensive blue menswear-inspired button-down from Copenhagen (“an investment piece,” I told myself at the time, “classic”) within a month of buying it. It still has the spare button on the tag. I pulled a hole in my beautiful artisan sweater, a hole that can’t be fixed with the spare wool thread and button that I still have in the plastic bag. My white button-downs are a holey, yellowed mess long before they lose a button. Yet the Scandinavian fashion brand Filippa K was nice enough to provide two spare ones with my most recent purchase. Filippa’s so sweet. She believes I’m a better person than I am. (Scandinavians: so cheerfully superior in every way.)

In reality, I’ve successfully sewn on a spare button only once, on a black wool peacoat. At $400, that peacoat was undoubtedly an investment piece for 25-year-old me. Everything about it was beautiful and made to last, except for the large, bulbous aluminum buttons, which were just too much for the thread to handle. One popped button I rescued and sewed back on. Then another fell off and was lost to the streets of New York. I snipped the spare button off the interior tag to replace it. When the coat finally lost its top button, I spent a whole winter season feeling slightly drafty and hoping nobody would notice.

If I were clever, I would have bought a whole new set of matching buttons and replaced all of them together. But I allowed that one missing button to propel me into the arms (pun intended) of another new coat.

Maybe spare buttons are just aspirational, designed to make us believe something about ourselves that’s not really true anymore. That we can have a fulfilling job and do crafty things in our spare time. That we could be satisfied with a capsule wardrobe of 30 items, which would free up so much time and psychic space that we would finally write that novel. That we could go plastic-free if we just put in a little more effort.

We revere our grandmothers’ lifestyles, holding them up for how they stretched their budgets, lived sustainably, never wasted anything. But we forget that many of them were stay-at-home moms and didn’t have stretchy jeans. Who among my friends is willing to sacrifice her career and comfort to accomplish these tiny victories of virtue?

We want to be Scandinavian in our cozy, perfect, handcrafted homes. But the Nordic people have paid parental leave and work-life balance. Yup, I just politicized the spare button.

Still, I want the spare buttons to keep coming. Not because I think I will actually use them — but because I want to believe I can pull this off one day. Sacrificing a bit of drawer space is worth it to me to keep that door open.

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