Friday, March 14, 2014

Why Do Women's Clothes have Buttons on the Left?

Last week, while finishing up my Albion jacket, I had a few moments of confusion. I was putting buttons on the coat - a departure from the pattern - and I couldn't remember which way the buttons vs. button placket goes on women's coat. Well, since the Albion is a men's pattern, I doubt it mattered. Still I went to the internet to check.

Then I began wondering where this came from. Why make difference where there isn't any? So I Googled my question; Why do women's clothes have buttons on the left?
File:Mamie Eisenhower color photo portrait, White House, May 1954.jpg
This is from Wiki-commons. Mamie Eisenhower's shirt is buttoned from the left.

Buttons have been used since biblical times to fasten or decorate clothing. Archaeologists have unearthed buttons dating back to times earlier than written history. Buttons are the simple (yet brilliant) way to attach two parts of a garment together by pushing a large glass/metal/plastic round object that is sewn onto one side into a hole that is reinforced by thread on the other. Its a simple operation and I doubt archaeologists have found that women buttoned clothing differently than men. So with no physical reason to button on different sides I decided to investigate why the design feature may exist. I learned three or four oft-believed stories that make little sense.

File:Ambassador to Czechoslovakia Shirley Temple 19901025 crop.jpg
Shirley Temple Black talks with a uniformed officer in in Germany in the 1990s. Notice the officer's uniform closing. (Picture from Wiki-commons)

Theory #1 - Men carried swords on the right and therefore the buttons switched to the right to accommodate their quick retrieval.

 In the1200s, buttons became popular as more fitted clothing became popular. At that time, both men and women had buttons sewn on the left side of their garments, the same side as women do today. During the Middle Ages as war became more commonplace, men needed to unbutton their coats quickly to draw their swords, which were on their left side. Since the right hand was used to draw the sword, it took a great deal of time for that same right hand to first undo the buttons. Men's shirt buttons were moved to the right as a result.

This would be a good reason to invent zippers! Or simply to change the fit of the garment to make the drawing of swords easier. Switching the button side could actually have held things up for men used to using the other side.

Theory #2 Women's shirts button on the left-hand side because at the time in which shirts with buttons for women became popular, rich women didn't dress themselves. 

Women were usually dressed by a maid and that included doing up the buttons. Right-handed maids found it faster to do up clothing when the buttons faced them, so the garment construction was changed to reflect this. Men buttoned their own shirts so they didn't have this problem.  Remember that women’s clothing was usually far more elaborate too. For quite awhile, women wore corsets, girdles, bustles, petticoats, bloomers and gowns  and all would would have required the assistance of a maid when dressing. Additionally, women who could afford decorated and embellished dresses that came with lots of buttons usually had plenty of servants to dress them anyway. 

 This theory assumes that more women had maids than was actually true. Also, inherent in it is that designs were curtailed to the likes and dislikes of the maids, who were given an uncharacteristic voice in the making of their employer's clothes. And finally that the women across the countryside who were largely responsible for making their family's clothes, and who likely made them on an as-needed basis, somehow customized them based on palace fashions.

Theory #3 Woman's buttoning on the left was a signal of  her inferiority.

I suppose there could be some bite to this theory but then, I think it would have been challenged somehow and obliterated. After all, we challenged many of the other laws and customs that speak to an inherent belief that women are inferior. Why would this one go unchallenged?

Theory #4 It is a custom that has come about as a result of women wearing men's fashions.

This is the one that I think holds water. Women began wearing men's fashions around 1920. (Women wore men's clothes before that but it wasn't necessarily marketed to women as fashion).  When women began wearing pants and shirts that were influenced by menswear, it makes sense that to reclaim some part of the wardrobe as definitively feminine, manufacturers made this design feature unique to women's button closures.

File:StateLibQld 1 179911 Mother and daughter of the Leonard family.jpg
This picture is from Wiki-commons archive, a mother and daughter posing for a photograph. There shirts are definitely following the left-button rule.


  1. I'd heard the for-the-ease-of-ladies'-maids theory before, but not the others. Thanks, your research is very interesting. Apropos, I saw a pic of a wrap-dress recently that wrapped from right to left and it struck me as slightly off--which, in thinking about why, I speculate that my mind's-eye is habituated by text to prefer left to right arrangements. It occurred to me to wonder if the Japanese have a norm for wrapping kimonos, since I believe their writing runs from right to left.

    1. You're right, the wrap dresses I've looked at since your comment do wrap toward the left. And kimonos are an interesting consideration. I assume they would have developed independently of Western fashion and so they may offer us some interesting takes on these theories.

  2. Interesting post. Thanks for the research.

  3. "This would be a good reason to invent zippers!" The story of the invention of zippers is actually pretty interesting, but it's something that could not have happened before the Industrial Revolution. You can read about it in "The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are" by Henry Petroski.

    1. I find zippers to be a wonderful small machine. I'll look up that article. Thanks.



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