It’s not one of life’s great mysteries but have you ever wondered why men’s shirts always have their buttons on the right hand placket? And why it should be exactly the opposite for women?
How did this seemingly arbitrary difference come about? What theories sit behind this gender peculiarity?
Given we’ve been making men’s shirts since 1938, let’s start with them. One train of thought looks at the fashions of hundreds of years ago when men’s clothing often included weaponry – whether it was for ‘Stand and Deliver’ or for reasons closer to the right side of the law.
A right-handed man would pull his weapon out with his primary hand and unbutton with his left. The proliferation of ‘hand in the waistcoat’ paintings of the time looks to support this idea.
Delve back even further to armoured soldiers on the battlefield and you’ll find the accepted fighting position was to face the enemy with the left side protected by the shield. Plates of armour overlapped from left to right to reduce the chance of an enemy’s lance point slipping between the plates. "Dieu et mon droit" The tradition of buttoning left to right transferred to coats, then shirts and continues to this day.
So that explains why our buttons are on the right, but why should it be on the left for women’s shirts and blouses?
This is where the introduction of the button comes into the mix. No-one is quite sure when the button was invented (at least a thousand years ago) but one thing we do know is that during the Renaissance they became more and more elaborate – indeed the fancier the buttons worn, the higher the social status. Buttons were expensive and the prerogative of the wealthy.
Convention dictated that servants were essential as ‘dressers’ for the finely be-decked ladies and gents of the time and maid-servants, like everyone else - were most commonly right-handed.
Another theory revolves around babies. Given this right-hand dominance, mothers tend to hold their babies in their left arm, keeping the right one relatively free. Ipso facto – tops or blouses that open on the right, makes breast-feeding easier.
A less popular theory, but given some credence – has to do with the style of horse-riding adopted by women. By Tudor times the ‘saddle of queens’ (the side-saddle, rode to the right) was considered the proper way for a lady to ride – astride just ‘would not do’.
So putting their shirt and dress buttons to the left lessened (to a small extent), the breeze that would flow into clothing as they rode along.
Fashion often has a way of trickling down through from the better off to the less so – haute couture to high street and the ‘right-over-left’ designs remained, even when dressing became more of a do-it-yourself affair.
There’s absolutely no reason the side a shirt buttons couldn’t be switched – it’s just that inertia has protected a tradition few people notice or complain about it the first place! Or is that, we secretly applaud ‘Vive la Difference’?