The two buttons on the back of a coat, in the fall of the back, are a survival of the buttons on the back of riding-coats and military frocks of the eighteenth century, occasionally used to button back the coat-tails.
A boy in buttons. A page, whose jacket in front is remarkable for a display of small round buttons, as close as they can be inserted, from chin to waist.
“The titter [tingle] of an electric bell brought a large fat buttons, with a stage effect of being dressed to look small.” —Howell: Hazard of New Fortunes, (vol. i. part i. chap. vii. p. 58).
He has not all his buttons. He is half-silly; “not all there”; he is “a button short.” Dash my buttons. Here, “buttons” means lot or destiny, and “dash” is a euphemistic form of a more offensive word.
The buttons come off the foils. Figuratively, the courtesies of controversy are neglected.
“Familiarity with controversy ... will have accustomed him to the misadventures which arise when, as sometimes will happen in the heat of fence, the buttons come off the foils.” —Nineteenth Century (June, 1891, p. 925).
`Tis in his buttons. He is destined to obtain the prize; he is the accepted lover. It is still common to hear boys count their buttons to know what trade they are to follow, whether they are to do a thing or not, and whether some favourite favours them. (See Bachelor.)
“ `Tis in his buttons: he will carry't.” —Shakespeare: Merry Wives of Windsor, iii. 2.
'Tis not in his buttons. 'Tis not in his power, 'tis not in his lot.
To have a soul above buttons. To be worthy of better things; to have abilities too good for one's present employment. This is explained by George Colman in Sylvester Daggerwood: “My father was an eminent button-maker ... but I had a soul above buttons ... and panted for a liberal profession.”
To put into buttons. To dress a boy as a “page,” with a jacket full in the front with little buttons, generally metallic and very conspicuous.
To take by the button. To detain one in conversation; to apprehend, as, “to take fortune by the button.” The allusion is to a custom, now discontinued, of holding a person by the button or button-hole in conversation.
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894