I noticed something odd for the first time recently: women’s clothing buttons differently than men’s. I’d been previously oblivious, but just noticed because I put on this nice roomy button-down Christmas sweater my wife got, and realized that all the buttons are backwards from what I’m used to. How strange. I asked her if this was normal, and she told me that yes, this was the convention. Which made me wonder…why? It’s not as if women and men differ in handedness, or are consistently asymmetric in different ways. My first thought was that it was another arbitrary signifier of sex, like the absence of pockets in women’s clothing, only more random and less malicious.
And then Mary sent me a link to this article which assigns purposes to the different arrangement of buttons, and I simply found it galling. Their explanations don’t make sense.
So men button in one way for reasons of utility:
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. This makes no sense. You button your shirt in one direction because you’re typically holding a weapon in your right hand? But how often are you simultaneously buttoning up a shirt and spearing an antelope?
But women button the other way, because babies.
Given right-hand dominance, women tend to hold their infants in their left arms, keeping their right arms relatively free. So shirts whose open flap is on the right, one theory goes, makes it easier for them to open with those free hands for breastfeeding. I suppose it’s typical that male traits are explained by their likelihood of holding a weapon, and female traits by baby handling, but again, it makes no sense. I’ve held babies, and I recall holding them on whatever side was convenient at the time. The tricky part to holding a baby or a spear and unbuttoning your shirt is the unbuttoning bit — that requires a bit more dexterity than holding a bulky objects. So both men and women face the problem of unbuttoning while holding an object, and they get completely reversed solutions to the problem?
And then there’s this explanation:
Women, to the extent women rode horses, rode sidesaddle, to the right—so putting their shirt and dress buttons on the left reduced, to some extent, the breeze that would flow into their shirts as they were trotting along.
Face it, people. You’re just making this stuff up. Like this story, that women mocked Napoleon by putting their hands in their vests like he did in that portrait:
One theory (which, warning, I can’t find much corroboration for, but I put out there for your consideration) holds that Napoleon ordered women’s shirts be buttoned on the opposite side of men’s to end all the fun-making at his expense.
No evidence, but hey, let’s just throw it out there. Apparently, Napoleon did not get so upset at men mocking him that he upended the garment industry to get back at them.
So basically that whole article is a lot of bullshit. I’m going to suggest that there are two likely alternative explanations:
It’s a frozen accident. In the early days of mass production of garments, industries specialized to deal with men’s and women’s clothing, and early chance decisions fixed the women’s industries to one way, and men’s another way. They could have both standardized on the same direction, or opposite directions, but by chance they didn’t, and now it’s an established convention.
It’s a conscious distinction, but still arbitrary. The specific orientation has no functional consequence except that it’s supposed to be different for men and women, because God forbid that a man might accidentally put on a woman’s shirt. His testicles might fall off.
It seems to me that all the contrived scenarios ought to be informed by historical evidence, which is not given. Was there an abrupt flip of the French clothing arrangement in the early 19th century? Do we have women’s diaries complaining of that awful side-saddle breeze (I suspect that if functionality were a defining constraint here, they wouldn’t have been riding side-saddle in the first place)? Were duelists facing a pressing need to unbutton their clothes in the heat of battle?
Also, I think it’s a minor issue compared to that real pressing question, about the absence of pockets in women’s clothing. I think that one is good evidence that there is a patriarchy, and it is evil.