Buttons have existed as a way of fastening clothes since thousands of years BC, but over the last few millennia no one’s been able to explain the provenance of a rather curious buttoning practice: Why do men’s and women’s clothing have buttons on opposite sides?
It’s a peculiar fashion norm: Design convention dictates that a man’s buttons should be on the right hand side of a garment (say, a shirt) with the buttonholes on the left, but that a woman’s shirt should be the other way around: buttons on the left, holes on the right. This means that men button from left to right, but women from right to left. Why is this still a thing? Why was this ever a thing?
When I agreed to look into this mystery, I assumed that at least the history would be clear—that there must be an obvious reason for such a seemingly unnecessary gender difference. But while my research turned up several compellingly practical-sounding theories, there doesn’t seem to be any great consensus on the issue. Even the president of the British Button Society told me she wasn’t sure.
A few ideas spring up regularly, such as in this helpful Quora thread or this crowdsourced reader response in the Globe and Mail. One popular suggestion holds that men’s buttons are fastened left-to-right because historically men might need to pull a weapon from beneath their coat or shirt using their right hand. Indeed, this is the explanation given by the most authoritative account I could find.
In a book titled Accessories of Dress: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, first published in 1940, author Katherine Lester notes the gender difference in buttons, which she seems to find equally puzzling then as we do now.
“Milady’s habit always buttons from right to left, while milord fastens his in the reverse order—from left to right,” she observes.
Her explanation is that, once upon a time, what we know as normal for women was the universal standard, but this changed owing to men’s gender roles as hunters or fighters. She writes:
It is believed that originally all garments fastened from right to left. In the early days, however, when man was engaged in the hunt and chase, and later, when wielding the sword as a knight, he invariably drew his weapon with his right hand from the left side. With the garment fastened, the right edge over the left, his quick action was greatly hindered. This awkward situation changed the order of fastening the garment, and it was reversed.
Some accounts, however, suggest that left-to-right used to be the standard; and several theories offer different reasons as to why, if men needed buttons on the right to grab weapons, women would benefit from buttons on the left. Popular suggestions include that women riding side-saddle with their legs to the left would be more shielded from the breeze with right-to-left, or that women holding a baby in their left arm would find it easier to unbutton a shirt right-to-left in order to breastfeed. Some suggest that the gender difference was a purposeful distinction to differentiate men’s from women’s clothes as fashions brought them closer in style, or even just another petty way to put women in their place by emphasizing that they were different to men.
Meanwhile, an article in the Atlantic favours the proposition that women’s buttons are “the wrong way around” because at a crucial time when fashion norms were taking hold, women in the upper echelons of society would not dress themselves; inverting the buttons would make it easier for a right-handed maid to fasten them. However, one fashion history blogger points out that upper class men would also have had a servant to dress them, which casts some doubt on this theory.
Regardless the real reason or reasons for a historical gendered button difference, none of this answers the question of why this is still a thing. Although stores increasingly offer unisex styles, a quick survey of the VICE UK office revealed that, in general, the button divide remains strong. Is it just laziness or force of habit that means outdated conventions have endured, or is there still some kind of reason to mark out a man’s shirt from a woman’s?
I reached out to many people for this article, and of those that responded, no one really seemed to have an answer. Kim Johnson, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, wrote in an email that gender differences continue to be important to our culture and that this is just one example of a differentiator in male and female fashion.
“As long as we have power differences between the genders, we will continue to have dress differences,” she added.
It’s true that clothes are still very much subject to gender differences: Entirely different garments are still offered to men and women (think skirts and dresses), and gender differences are evident in cuts, styles, and colours. The Let Clothes Be Clothes campaign points out the absurdity of “boys’” versus “girls’” designs on children’s clothing that perpetuate the “blue for a boy; pink for a girl” stereotype among others, and decorative differences persist in adult fashion. In her book, Lester bemoans that while women’s clothes maintain all kinds of embellishment, “buttons remain one of the few ornaments permitted the sober garb of gentlemen”—a fact that remains largely true today.
More evidence as to a persistent, if likely implicit, gender bias in the choice of button fastenings is found in modern unisex button-down styles. When I searched for a unisex shirt, the buttons on the ostensibly gender-neutral items were almost invariably on the same side: the right, following the male convention. Will this end up becoming a universal standard? Given the difference has already persisted over centuries with no apparent reason, it seems unlikely that we’ll reach such sartorial gender parity until the button fastening itself becomes obsolete.
Why Is This Still a Thing is a column exploring the anachronistic, seemingly-outdated technology that surrounds us. New columns appear every Friday.