Within the simple action of buttoning a top is an age-old design mystery no one can seem to solve: Why are women’s shirt buttons placed on the left while men’s are positioned on the right? There’s no real practical reason for the differentiation these days, but the tradition has been around since the 1850s. Here, a list of possible answers to satisfy your curiosity.
1. Because of breastfeeding.
One theory says that since most people are right-handed and women would typically hold babies in their left arms, placing buttons on the left made it easier to open up a shirt to breastfeed with the free hand.
2. Because of horseback riding.
Since women traditionally rode sidesaddle to the right, putting shirt buttons on the left would supposedly reduce breeze flowing into women’s tops while riding.
3. Because upper-class women didn’t dress themselves.
This one is, by far, the most commonly cited reasoning for women’s left-sided buttons. Wealthy women with maids to help dress them had buttons on the left to make it easier for a right-handed maid to fasten them. There’s some doubt about this theory — onefashion history blogger notes that men would’ve been dressed by a servant too in the 17th and 18th centuries. Meanwhile, buttons were rare on women’s clothing until the 18th century and only until after 1860 started appearing always on the left for women — at least 100 years after maids/servants started being used for such tasks. Another thing to mull over: Why would upper-class people adjust clothing for the sake of the servants?
4. Because people wanted to mimic clothing of the rich.
To add to theory #3, it is believed that even after people started dressing themselves, buttons (once considered expensive items) stayed on the left so the masses could copy wealthy women’s clothing.
5. Because men carried weapons.
Men’s shirts button on the right because they held weapons with the right hand and found it more natural to unbutton shirts using the left hand. Women, obviously, didn’t need that convenience. This theory could also trace back all the way to hunting and gathering days in which, as Katherine Lester writes in the 1940 book Accessories of Dress, “a man’s role as hunter required that he pull a weapon from left to right. Fastening a garment from right to left would impede the movement of our ancestors.”
6. Because of Napoleon.
Women supposedly mocked the French emperor’s hand-in-waistcoat pose (then considered a mark of dignity) and apparently he ordered that women’s shirts be manufactured to button on the opposite side of men’s so they could no longer do that. This one’s not totally believable (and there aren’t many reliable sources writing about this), but it’s out there.
7. Because of gender inequality.
Nineteenth-century sexologist Havelock Ellis writes in Man and Woman: A Study of Secondary and Tertiary Sexual Characters (published in 1894), that women’s garments buttoning right to left is a mark that women “seem inferior to men” in “strength and in rapidity and precision of movement.” He argues that women have weaker motor skills because they require assistance in dressing (going along with theory #3). Another theoryasserts that, as women’s clothing started expressing emancipation and borrowing more and more from men’s clothing (see: pants), manufacturers maintained buttons on the left as a practicality to distinguish between men’s and women’s clothing. That practicality, however, is innately about inequality as Kim Johnson, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, recently told Vice, “As long as we have power differences between the genders, we will continue to have dress differences.”
Thankfully, the implied sexism of having left-sided buttons has become meaningless in the mindless minute it takes to put on a shirt in present day. While unisex tops from avariety of brands all maintain buttons on the right, the men’s way traditionally, we predict this mystery will eventually end up being a thing of the past with the movement toward more gender-neutral clothing. Or, you know, we’ll just deal with it.