Have you ever noticed that men’s and women’s shirts button up slightly differently? Men’s shirts button left over right and women’s button right over left, and both have done so for centuries. What is the reason for the differences, and why does this persist to this day?
Mens’ shirts and weapons
In medieval times, swords were kept on the left of the body so that they could be drawn with the right hand. The last thing you needed was for your sword to catch on a jacket or shirt button, and the simplest way to avoid this was for clothing to button left over right. When button-up clothing became popular in the late medieval and early renaissance periods, clothing needed to be worked around in common sword wearing practice.
The legacy of swords on the left is thought to be why we drive on the left, too! When guns became widespread in military use from the 19th century, the buttons remained as they were as it continued to make sense. It was easier to slip your right hand in your shirt if it was buttoned left over right to draw a pistol effectively and swiftly. Like many traditions, this simply never changed and men’s clothing still button left over right today.
Ladies shirts and her assistants
Despite the fact that women were unable to join the military until recent years, it still seems strange that their clothing buttons right over left. Surely it would be easier for tailors if buttons always went the same way regardless of gender. Historians believe that for women, it had something to do with the home help. Upper-class women were far more likely to have buttoned clothing as buttons were once a symbol of status; the richer your were, the more you had. For your right-handed maid facing you, it was easier to button right over left. There is one further leading theory for women that women tend to hold babies with their left arm for breastfeeding, leaving the right free to open buttons. Again, whatever the reason, clothes manufacturers continue to make women’s shirts button right over left.
Ultimately, the reason for buttoning conventions for men was weaponry and for women, it was nurturing their young.