So last night while I was complaining about how there is clearly some prejudice against women who want to tuck their shirts in (Honestly? Men’s shirt-tails are so much longer, and it’s not fair), I was reminded of another interesting difference between men’s and women’s shirts.
If you’re like me and you own an androgynous collection of clothing, you’ve probably noticed that men’s shirts, pants, and shorts have buttons on the right side and women’s often have them on the left. Why is this?
Here is one account from writer and artist Justin Brown at Primer Magazine:
Though there’s no historical record or museum with an exhibit devoted to buttons (and/or factual logic as to why a person’s sex would have anything to do with said buttons’ orientation), most sources seem to cite the same simple rationale that dates back over a century.
Mens’ buttons are on the right side because men have always tended to dress themselves and most men (and women, for that matter) are right-handed.
Womens’ buttons are on the left side because years ago (say, during the Victorian Era), the women that could afford fancy clothing with a bunch of buttons would rely on maids to help dress them.
Okay, so now we’ve had our history lessen. Aside from the lack of citations in this article, Brown’s sickening assumption that the only people asking this question are men, and the dizzying attempt to offer excuses for why men would have noticed this difference in the first place (folding the laundry of men and women; accidentally trying on women’s clothing in TJ Maxx without realizing it), this is pretty solid information.
An Ask Yahoo answer gave even more possible explanations, such as the buttons being placed in a certain way to help men draw their swords, defend against sword attacks, unbutton their shirts while simultaneously drawing their swords, and to help women…nurse on the side closest to their hearts.
Basically, this button thing is outdated. Men don’t need to draw swords on a regular basis and most women don’t have servants to dress them. Hell, too many women these days aren’t even breastfeeding anymore (shame! shame!) due to vanity. So why are buttons still placed this way?
Well, the obvious answer is tradition, ignorance, and laziness. We’ve been doing it this way for too long, nobody knows why anymore, and nobody cares enough to figure it out and make a change. I don’t feel personally affronted by my shirt buttons being on the left side (However, this whole concept is working under the assumption of universal right-handedness, a prejudice I certainly don’t want to encourage), but if it was enough of a concern in the Victorian era that doing buttons with one’s non-dominant hand would be too cumbersome, why should it be any different now?
This probably seems pretty trivial… because it is. It’s buttons, for crying out loud. It’s too hard to button with your left hand? Poor baby.
The real issue is that it is just another way of differentiating between men’s and women’s clothing—a type of clothing that is otherwise fairly gender neutral. Button-up shirts? I’ve got men’s and women’s and they all look and fit pretty much the same. But God help the man who accidentally picks up a shirt meant for a woman—distinguishable because of the buttons—and either stuffs it back on the shelf red-faced or awkwardly laughs with his buddies about it later. What the hell is the big deal? It’s a women’s shirt. It doesn’t have cooties!
Whether or not it has been done intentionally, making button-up shirts even slightly different for men and women only gives men and women another chance to shy away from the opposite gender identity. It’s sad, really, because while the shirts do have a few practical differences (women’s shirts tend to have shorter shirt-tails and shorter collars that don’t cover ties as well), in terms of cross-dressing, wearing a button-up shirt intended for the opposite sex is a pretty mild offense. That doesn’t change the taboo, though.