Buttoning Conventions

There are well accepted buttoning conventions in modern clothes. There do not, however, appear to have been any standard conventions concerning the placement of buttons even as late as the early 19th Century. Two conventions have developed in modern times concerning the palcement of buttons. The first is a differing button placement for man and women. The widely accepted convention in clothing is that womens clothes button on the left and often at the front. The second is the palcement of buttons on the back of blouses and dresses for women and children. HBC has noted a varieety of explanations concening these conventions. We are not yet sure about the actual development, but we are collecting information and hope to eventually have a more definitive explanation.

Chronology

At least during the Regency (first decades of the 19th century in England) the direction in which men's clothes buttoned was not yet fully standardized, although it had begun to settle into the way we know it now. There is a book aimed at tailors from this period (1814, I think?) that advises its readers to put real buttonholes on both sides of a double-breasted waistcoat so that if the front is stained, the wearer could button it the other way. Modern buttoning conventions begin to appear during the late Victorian era. We are not sure, but this may have been assiociated with the rise of mass produced ready to wear garments in the later part of the century. As a resut the later in the 19th century the more we see mostly right-buttoning jackets and shirts. Even so we still see left buttoning items in the 1890s. A good example is unidentified American boys in the 1890s. Even at the turn of the century, however, modern conventions were not fully established. We note an American boy at the turn of the 20th century with a double breasted suit which does not use the modetn conventions.

Left-Right Closures

The widely accepted convention in modern clothing is that womens clothes button on the left and often at the front. Mens' clothing buttons on the right and always as the front. I'm not sure precisely when this convention developed, but it appears to have been become well established after the mid-19th century. Notably this is the period when the mass production of clothing began. HBC has noted considerable discussion on this topic, but can not yet confirm precisely how this convention was established.

Common theory: servants

Many of our contemporary clothing styles have their origins in the 19th century Victorian period as do our buttoning conventions. Some authors suggest that fashionable women at the time were dressed by others (and most people were right-handed). Thus women's clothing was designed to be fastened by a right-handed person FACING them, while men were assumed to dress themselves. Women were more likely to have maids to help them dress. To button a shirt or blouse, a right-handed person (most people are right handed) finds it more convenient to hold the button with the right hand and then push it through the buttonhole, which is held in the left hand. To make it easier for the maid, the buttons were changed on garments made for ladies of high society. Since the maid faced the lady while dressing her, buttons on the left simplified the matter. Thus left buttoning buttons and buttons in back made it easier for a maid to help with the dressing. Wealthy men also had servants such as valets. However, while they might lay out the clothes, the would not dress the man in the same way a ladies maid would dress a woman, such as buttoning his buttons. A factor to be considered with servants is that during the late 19th century with the rise of industry that there was a tremendous expansion of wealth. Some people became fabulously wealthy, but many more entered the middle class and could for the first time afford servants. Those reaching the affluence of the upper middle class might even be able to afford a ladies' maid. This could explain why the left-buttoning convention developed in the Victorian period. More people had servants than ever before and the cost of servants increased as general living standards improved. The change to left buttoning accommodated not only their servants, but subtly let society know who was wealthy enough to have a maid. Clothes were mase to order so the individual could specify how she wanted the buttons. Soon even women without servants wanted her buttons on the left side. When the mass production of clthing began in the late 19th century, this convention may have been accepted as an established convention.

Side saddle riding

Women in Europe and America commonly wore side saddle until it became acceptable to wear jodpurs in the 20th century. A HBC reader writes. "I had been told by my Great Grandmother that the introduction of left-hand buttons in women's clothing came about as a result of ladies who rode side-saddle. Ladies' side-saddle design had the women facing the left of the horse. With buttons on the right, the resulting breeze from the galloping horse would go into the blouse. By reversing the buttons the breeze would blow along the top of the placket." [Mitch Miller -- ] HBC has some doubts about this, in part because wommen were riding saddle for centuries before the left-right buttoning convenions developd. We cannot, however, rule it out as a possible factor.

Mass production

Other authorities argue that this is one of the more pervasive clothing myths (that the reason men's and women's clothing close in opposite directions is because women had maids to dress them and men didn't). In reality, the upper class of both genders had servants and the lower classes didn't. HBC is not sure here, but we believe that it was more common for women to have sevants help dress them and for such ladies' made to be more involved in the actual dressing process. HBC does not yet know definitevely why closeures are different but what is interesting is that it really only seems to happen AFTER clothing starts being mass produced. Most pre-1880's clothing that I've examined shows no standard for right-over-left or left-over-right for either men's or women's clothing. One theory is that each of the garment industries (men's and women's) came up with it's own standard for the factory production of garments, and they just happened to be the opposite of each other.


Figure 1.--The fancy blouses made for boys had right buttoning buttons just as more boyish looking shirt waists. Some fancy blouses for boys, however, are back buttoning.

Possible historical roots

Some authors stress that fashion conventions may have exceedingly ancient roots. The origin of buttons is not clearly chronicled. According to Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things by Charles Panati, buttons began to be used as fasteners on clothing in Western Europe by the 13th century, although decorative buttons without buttonholes were several thousand years earlier. Paul H Nystrom in "Influence of Custom on Consumption," (chapter VI) Economics of Fashion, (1928), pp. 130-131, says that the strength of custom can be very poweful. The placing of buttons, for example, may date back centuries. In the use of buttons and other closured, modern apparel appears to be stronly influenced by custom. The differing place ment of buttons is an old custom and may be explained as follows:
Men: Buttons are placed on the right side of men's clothing. When a man's right hand was occupied with implements or weapons, buttons on the right side could best be adjusted with the left hand, thus leaving the right hand free to continue its work or fight, as the case might be. A reader reports that he read in a unidentified costume book that originally everything wrapped right over left because this is the easiest way for right handed people to work buttons and other fasteners. However in the Renaissance, or perhaps the Cavalier period, when dueling was fashionable for men, a gentleman would remove his shirt to duel. Of course he would use his left hand so he could keep his sword hand free to defend himself should his adversary try a sneak attack while he was undressing. Hence men's garments began to be fastened left over right. According to Comptons Encyclopedia, men have buttoned their clothes left over right since the middle ages. The buttons on the right, allowed a man to reach under the flap of his topcoat with his right hand to get to his sword easily, which was hung on his left side. He could do this quickly without the sword becoming entangled with his clothing.
Women: Buttons are placed on on the left side on women's clothing. This may be due to the fact that the reason that women, from time immemorial, have usually carried their babies on their left arms while working with their right hands. This custom made it more convenient to use the right hand rather than the left when buttoning or unbuttoning their garments. Similarly, buttons on wrist and skirt bands are place on the thumb side for men and on the little finger side for women. One observers points out that women rode horseback by sitting sidesaddle. It was preferable that their clothes fastened right over left. They rode with both legs on the left side of the horse. With the new placement of the buttons, the breeze would not catch their clothing and open their jackets.

Skeptics

Not all obsevers, however, are convinced about these theories. One visitor tells me that she has since these theories, but does not understand the rationale at all. She is left-handed and so always carried her baby in her right arm, leaving my left hand free for tasks such as fussing with buttons. Nonetheless, she finds it convenient to fasten buttons the way they're currently arranged (on the left for women). That's how she learned to do it, and if they were arranged otherwise, I'm sure she could have done just as well, given that she must now be performing this operation the opposite of how it was intended. She thinks we become adept at whatever we grow up learning to do, although the historic placement of buttons would seem to indicate otherwise. Maybe (as someone who can write with either hand and use your average pair of scissors) she was just more manually skilled than the average person.


Figure 2.--It is often difficult to determine gender in old photographs. The front buttons on this child' blouse are a good indicator that it is a boy. The low cut is not a good clue as little boys and girls at the time wore the style of dresses. For confirmation that the child is a boy, click on the image.

The historical explanations about the rationale for 'gendered buttons' has me wondering whether the 'rational' explanations that are given in fashion histories (like the one quoted from The Economy of Fashion) are post-hoc explanations, since there are no further sources given. I'm thinking of Norbert Elias' intriguing point about post-hoc explanations of manners that have little to do with the actual origins of a particular behavior (e.g. the hygiene arguments for spittoons and for covering one's mouth when coughing etc, which come much later than the actual introduction of these civilizing behaviors). In the history of fashion, there are undoubtedly similar examples of accoutrements or specific cuts that are not vestiges of some useful purpose (examples were: riding, carrying babies on the left side, etc)... obviously, corsets and other constrictions come to mind. I'm wondering whether the gendered buttons can really be explained in terms of practicality--a question raised above as well in terms of handedness, different ways of carrying babies etc.

Back Buttoning

The common explanation of back buttoning garments like dresses and bluses for women and children is that they are most likely to have sevants or mothers helping them dress. This the back arrangement makes it easier for the person helping. The convention here appears to have developed at about the same time as the left/right convention and thus may be related. Again one some wealthy womennbegan to change to back buttoning styles, less affluent women, even those without servants to help them dress, may have followed this convention so they would appear more affluent.

Children's Clothes

What ever the origins, these conventions were often followed with children's clothes. Thus girlish looking dresses and blouses in the 19th century were made with front buttons are right buttoning buttons. This is one way to tell that these garments were in fact made for boys.

Photographic Identification

These two elements of buttons: front/back palcement and left/right buttoning arrangements can offer insights into the gender of the child. There are a variery of complications using buttons to help identify children in old photographs.A HBC reader points out that three things that make the left/right convention difficult to employ in gender identification. 1 - it is often hard to tell. 2 - We do not know how strictly this convention was followed in the past, especially with children. Also remember children commonly wore hand me downs. A young boy might very well wear a dress his older sister had outgrown. 3 - Some photographs get printed with the negative the wrong way up. People are still wondering whether Billy The Kid was really left handed or whether the most common picture of him just got printed the wrong way. Often of course, the reader had no way of determininh if a photograph is properly printed or if it is printed backwards, inaccurate conclusiond can be drawn. HBC does not yet fully understand the historical development of buttons, but have begun to collect information. We believe that the back buttoning convention is perhaps a more useful convention in photo identification.

Exceptions

While now a widespread convention, left buttoning garments for women and right buttoning garments for men is not universally accepted. Orthodox Jews, for example, use the opposite convention.






HBC




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Created: October 6, 2001
Last updated: 1:00 PM 2/2/2009