Penny Leaver Green gets to grips with Koumpounophobia (Button Phobia)

Until I started collecting buttons, I had never heard of Koumpounophobia (or Button Phobia, as it is known in layman's terms) but once I had, I was amazed at the number of people who suffer with the condition. Button phobia is surprisingly common, with sufferers often believing that they are 'the only one' to suffer from the condition.

"I can't even say the word"

The phobia, which often starts in childhood, can range from a mild phobia to an extreme fear, where the sufferer can have severe panic attacks and in some cases, also throw up. Sufferers have reported a range of different fears, which include everything from: being disgusted by the sight of them and wash their skin when it comes into contact with a button;  the fear that a a button may 'become loose';  the noise that buttons make;  the inability to make contact with others wearing buttons;  the need to choose clothes for their children that use zips, metal fasteners, elastic or velcro; and some sufferers can't say, write, or type the word 'buttons'. Male sufferers often find it difficult working in an office, because they don't like to wear standard office clothing - they may be afraid of breathing-in near a button, in case they inhale one.

Whilst googling researching Koumpounophobia, I came across the beautifully delicate work of Penny Leaver Green - a textile artist who creates pictures from thread and fabric. With a varied subject matter, her work is usually figurative and conversational, exploring the relationship between fabrics, design and words.

Penny's work stems from an idea and tends to develop as fabric is placed and thread worked. The type and provenance of the materials used to make the pieces is important- a set of old wooden cottons reels bought from a charity shop were used to stitch a piece exploring place and identity and a set of linen tea napkins, a family heirloom, reworked into a cot quilt.

"Birds & Fan - in progress"

"The Secret Garden"

Penny enjoys using fabrics that have been used for other purposes and often allows the fabric to inform the design and sometimes subject matter of a particular piece.

"Nest 2"

Penny recently explored the fear of buttons and investigated the extreme reactions to an everyday object, through some amazing textile pieces shown at her exhibition held at Harvey Nichols in Bristol, earlier in this year.

"Exhibition catalogue"

The pictures in the exhibition were divided into three sections: the first focusing on a specific button phobic and her responses to images of buttons sent to her; the second dealing with thousands of online confessionals about button phobia, as other phobics find they are not alone; and the third based on a piece of clinical research into the treatment of button phobics:(Disgust and a specific phobia of buttons by Lisette M Saavedra & Wendy Silverman Phd. - (Publ J.Am.Acad Chils adoles. Psychiatry Nov 2002)
"Commentary piece on the exhibition"

Penny says of her work: "During 2010, I have been exploring the place buttons have in our culture in collaboration with a button phobic and a clinical psychologist. I made 16 pictures exploring a particular button phobic's reactions to buttons and also looking at the button phobic presence on the internet. The resulting pictures were exhbited in Harvey Nichols, Bristol in February and some then featured in an exhibition at the Mona Bismarck Foundation in Paris from June - August."

“I was given a box of buttons by a friend. They had belonged to her mother-in-law who had recently died and she didn’t know what to do with them. They were beautiful buttons which spanned a century. They were made for an enormous range of garments from a huge variety of materials. I spent ages categorising them based on size, colour, age etc. It was compulsive

It was whilst discussing the button box and her reaction to it that Penny discovered the button phobic that she later used for her research: “She explained to me how she had often given her grandmother’s button box to play with by her mother, and that she had been repelled by it.
"Scale of Repulsion"

"Scale of Repulsion III"

"I began to consider buttons. The practical and aesthetic nature of them. Each button in the tin was magnificent and unique. My own tin of buttons, by contrast, had become ordinary and usual- I had become so used to them that they had no resonance- but the new ones were extraordinary."

"Fear of Loose Buttons"

"It seems that many of us collect buttons in a tin. We rarely use them; they are security in case a button is lost- but remain a solitary part of an increasing collection long after the item has hit the charity shop. Each button has a history, is representative of a design trend and era, they tells us about the quality of the garment and the type of occasion for which it was made. But what happens when we die and the tins of buttons are found? They are like photographs, deeply personal and important to the collector and strangely eerie and tainted to a stranger."

"Button Army"

"I wanted to explore the importance of buttons- of the need to collect, but also of our own personal response to the buttons and their stories. They perform a necessary function but are also badges of taste."

"The Not So Bad"

"I had a friend at school who was button phobic. We didn’t take her phobia seriously and would purposefully attempt to scare her with buttons. How could anything so seemingly innocuous provoke such a vehement response. I decided to track her down and see how she felt about my new tin of buttons. She now avoids wearing buttons on her clothes, although it seems metal jean’s buttons are tolerable. She will avoid looking at or touching a button still and feels strongly when confronted by a button or an image of one."

"Fear of Loose Buttons 2"

I was interested to consider what it was about the button that upset her- to explore the aesthetic qualities of the button: size, colour, design, material. I wanted to use the buttons I had been given as they had no personal connection for me or her. I sent her pictures of individual buttons, collections and of a series of buttons of the same material and colour but of different shapes. I asked her to comment on the photographs and to put the buttons in an order of repulsion.

"I will not touch it"

The language she used in her responses was strong, they were ‘disgusting’ or ‘repugnant’. I made a series of pictures based on these responses. She also spoke of a specific incident in a restaurant which had been particularly traumatic- I wanted to illustrate this moment.

"Fear of shirt buttons"

"It made me think that a button is a fantastic pointer of taste - our reaction is based not only material, shape, and colour but also psychological associations. In her case she had a specific psychological disgust which was at its height when the button was plain, plastic and with four holes - but she also had an aesthetic response- one button she felt unable to touch- but liked the colour, while another she felt was ’lowbrow’ due to the material and pattern."

Through the internet, Penny found many more Koumpounophobics: “Having found one button phobic in person, I found thousands more online, all commenting on their own repulsion. There were similarities in their response but also idiosyncracies, yet very few could explain where the phobia had come from”.

"Disgust/ Fear Hierarchy"

 It was such a joy to discover Penny's work and I do wish I could of seen the exhibition. Her work comes across as a fascinating insight, into what is a often misunderstood condition - for which I am extremely thankful I don't suffer from! Do head over to her website & blog - she has lots of other really beautiful work worth checking out.

Here's a great little video of one man's irrational fear of buttons... (via The California State Button Society)


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