Button It! The Difference for Ladies & Gents
I was recently having a drink with an Italian friend and a French friend, when the topic came up, "You work in men's clothing, right? Why do men's buttons and women's buttons go on opposite sides?" I know. This sounds like the beginning of some joke where each of us has our own culturally-influenced opinion about why the buttons are the way they are, made colorful and fun by the influences of alcohol... but it's really not!
I thought for a moment and, not wanting my friends to know that I didn't know the answer to this important question, I did what many half-drunken people do. I guessed. "Uhhh, I'm not 100% sure on this, but I'm pretty sure it's because men dressed themselves and women were dressed by handmaids." This answer was accepted, but come the next morning, I was starting to poke holes in the theory.
Firstly, fashionable ladies (or gentlemen) weren't the only people who needed to be dressed every morning. Secondly, men had manservants, so wouldn't those buttons be on the other side as well? But honestly, the biggest question I had that morning: During that time (that unspecified "somewhere in the past, way back" time, of course!), why would the upperclass people be going out of their way to buy garments to make the servants' lives easier? I mean, I'm my own servant and I'm still not going out of my way to make this job or that job easier on myself. So I started using the fine art of google-fu to find out.
Pictured: "Somewhere in the past, way back"
I was able to find out when the buttons started being on different sides. It all started during the Victorian Era, that much is certain.
But the reasons were still unknown, so I dug deeper.
Suprisingly enough, I saw my very own theory! During the Victorian Era, fashionable women's clothing was so complex that they had to have servants dress them. While men usually dressed themselves. Having the buttons on that side showed that you were rich enough to have servants. That's the gist. But I also saw the same complaints about the holes in that theory.
I also saw a few other theories that just seemed simply stupid, like that buttons were on the left for ladies because left-handed folks are looked down on and it reminded women of their lower status in societey. Dumb, right? Why would it be the style of wealthy women's clothing that does this, instead of low-value clothing or clothing for workers? Or coal miners, or whatever the lowest-of-the-low people were at the time? While women might have had lower status than men, women weren't lower than everyone--certainly not the wealthy, fashionable ones.
And it seems that many expensive garments had buttons on the left! Why would this trend stick around as long as it has if it were symbolic of low status or worth? People would be tearing them off and sewing them onto the other side if that's what it were all about (or having their servants change over the buttons for them). No one spends lots of money on clothing just so they can say "Hey! I'm less than you!"
My favorite (incorrect) theory: So that when men and women are sitting in the car (with the man driving, of course), both partners can peer down the other's shirt.
This hilarious idea relies on cars being invented before buttons became common. We can all rest assured buttons were pretty set in stone before cars came about.
But now that you mention it...
A few contend that it wasn't that women's buttons made the change (they did, as stated above) but that men's buttons did. Men would draw their weapon with their right hand, and guys didn't want the enemy's sword to go into their shirt. While this may in fact be the reason men's buttons are on the right, it was not brought about by some great change where everyone had them on the left, then only men's clothing changed them to the other side for weaponry's sake. Perhaps it is the reason for men's button positioning, but it's definitely not the reason for why men and women have them on opposite sides.
So why is it this way? The true answer? The moment you've been waiting for? No one knows for sure! Most people stick to the first theory, the one that I myself drunkenly came up with (or perhaps heard somewhere and my brain decided to say "hey, you totally thought of it!"), but there's no 19th century ad, and fashion blogs certainly weren't a thing, and no one during the time thought to actually write it down. (Who can blame them? I don't remember seeing any magazines stating the precise reason we all stopped wearing bedazzled denim jackets either.) So until someone finds a relative's diary specifically stating why the buttons are the way they are, we'll have to settle for one of the above theories and just overlook the holes.