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Why Men’s And Women’s Shirt Buttons Are On Different Sides

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Why Men’s And Women’s Shirt Buttons Are On Different Sides

Ever noticed how the buttons on men’s shirts and clothing are on a different side to those on women’s?

Well, perhaps not, but you may vaguely recall a drunken chat in the pub about it, having been subjected to your mate’s bizarre theories on the topic for several hours.  

While there’s no officially confirmed reason why men’s shirts have buttons running down the right-hand side, and women’s on the left, there are a number of ideas on the matter – most of which are rooted in history. 

Firstly, it’s thought that men’s buttons were on that side because their clothing traditionally held weapons.  

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Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

Chloe Chapin, fashion historian and Harvard University Ph.D. candidate in American studies, previously told Today: “I think it’s important to question which time period we're talking about, since shirt and jacket buttons are a relatively new phenomenon.

“But as a general rule, many elements of men’s fashion can be traced back to the military." 

Paul Keers, author of A Gentleman's Wardrobe, seems to agree, having told The Guardian: "A gentleman's sword was always worn on the left side, so that it could be drawn with the right hand. 

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"If a jacket buttoned right over left, the handle of the sword would be likely to catch in the jacket opening when drawn, so any serious swordsman would demand a tunic which buttoned left over right.

"As an indication of a masculine lifestyle, this tradition was then extended to other items of menswear.” 

Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

But while this could be the reason why men’s buttons tend to sit on the right, it doesn’t necessarily explain why women’s buttons are on the opposite side – especially when the majority of people are right-handed.

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Some historians and fashion experts believe this also comes down to habits from the past, when wealthier women – who could afford new fashions like buttons – would be dressed by someone else.  

Melanie M. Moore, founder of women’s blouse brand Elizabeth & Clarke, also told Today: “When buttons were invented in the 13th century they were, like most new technology, very expensive. 

“Wealthy women back then did not dress themselves - their lady’s maid did. Since most people were right-handed, this made it easier for someone standing across from you to button your dress.” 

Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy
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Live Science writer Benjamin Radford adds: “Depending on the era, men might wear waistcoats, pantaloons, gaiters and wool jackets. But women's clothing was far more elaborate, and could consist of a dozen or more garments including petticoats, bloomers, gowns, corsets and bustles.  

“Thus, especially in middle- and upper-class society, men generally dressed themselves, whereas women did not. Instead, maids and servants might spend an hour or more dressing the lady of the house.

"Clothiers soon realized that reversing the buttons on women's clothes made the job faster and easier for all involved. Because men were not dressed by servants, there was no need to reverse the buttons on their garments, and thus a custom was born.” 

Other possible reasons include, as the Smithsonian Magazine notes, the fact that some people believe many women breastfeed while holding their baby in their left arm, or that Napoleon 'mass-produced clothing that was intentionally difficult for women to put on'.

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Whatever the rationale, as for why these styles still prevail in an age when men (hopefully) aren’t carrying swords and women can usually dress themselves, Radford simply puts it down to custom.  

“For the same reason that most people still type on the QWERTY keyboard: it's customary,” he says. 

“There's no real reason the buttons couldn't be switched, it's just that nobody has bothered to change a tradition that few people notice or complain about in the first place.” 

Featured Image Credit: Alamy

Topics: News, Fashion

Jess Hardiman
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