Recently, the question (which has always bugged me) as to why men’s and women’s shirts buttoned on opposite sides was answered from an unexpected source. According to Steve Clayton, of Geek in Disguise this can be traced back to the fact that buttons used to be quite expensive and, as a result, could only be afforded by the rich. Because a rich lady never had to button her own clothing, the buttons were placed on the “wrong” (or opposite) side because they were buttoned for them and thus simpler to be buttoned by a person facing the woman.

buttons on women's shirts

“Come along Cinderella, I haven’t got all day!” (image: tranquility)

Now, this runs contrary to the story that we had been told previously, suggesting that women’s shirts button the right way and it is actually men’s shirts button the “wrong” way for a similar reason. This version of the story assumes that women were expected to button a man’s shirt for him and thus, placing the buttons on the opposite side of the shirt made this easier for the woman to button the man’s shirt.

The original side of the story reported by Clayton has been echoed by Yahoo, at least insofar as the fact that such a narrative exists… though Yahoo is similarly tentative to suggest that this is the corrrect version of the story. According to Yahoo, the answer dates back to the Victorian era and the opposite alignment of buttons was said to have been done to make the dressing of wealthy women simpler for their (traditionally) right handed servants, whilst men traditionally dressed themselves.

A further explanation, provided by Benjamin Dover (this is not a Simpson’s joke- proof here) suggests that men’s buttons were made to model the way in which armour was fastened whilst womens buttons were made to more easily facilitate breast feeding with the left breast (thus keeping the baby closest to the heart).

Finally, though consistent with the story reported by Yahoo and Mr. Clayton, a slightly different answer was provided by a website dedicated to answering stupid questions. The answers provided on this site are consistent with the “servant” narrative, however they point out the fact that traditionally women’s shirts have been much more likely to button on the side or the back. Thus, regardless of whether their servant is buttoning their clothing for them, someone else would have to and this would facilitate that process for the right-handed world.

While there remains no definitive answer, the overwhelming evidence would fall in favour of Mr. Clayton’s argument and I will be forced to point and laugh at my nay-saying friends and say “Hah! I told you so.” Now, thanks to our tireless research, you too may answer this question with multiple sources to back you up… and we can all agree that this tradition now seems little more than an outdated norm.

Well, now you know. And knowing is half the battle!

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