Myth # 89: Women’s buttons are on their left because women were dressed by maids, who found it easier when the buttons were on their right.

. . . and men’s buttons are on their right because they preferred to dress themselves.

Well, not exactly.

First of all, buttons are seldom found on women’s clothing before the nineteenth century. Mens’ clothing, yes, but women used ties, hooks, and other fasteners more than they used buttons. With most clothing made by the women of the house or, in the case of the wealthy few, by dressmakers and tailors, individual preference prevailed in positioning buttons. There was no standardization until the Civil War era when the manufacture of uniforms began on an industrialized scale. That is probably when buttons became more or less standard on the right for men.

Curators who deal with nineteenth-century women’s clothing report that they have seen buttons on both sides. No one is willing to go out on a limb on this topic, but it seems that the button-on-the-left for women’s clothing probably got started in the early twentieth century with the rise of women’s ready-made garments. And since women buying ready-made blouses would not have been among the wealthy few (who continued to use dressmakers), the argument about maids is illogical.

Besides, who says wealthy men preferred to dress themselves and wealthy women didn’t? That idea is totally unsupported by fact. What were all those valets, houseslaves, and manservants doing, anyway? 

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8 Responses to Myth # 89: Women’s buttons are on their left because women were dressed by maids, who found it easier when the buttons were on their right.

  1. Jane padded says:

    Ive heard that myth and it made since to me.
    thanks.

  2. Elaine says:

    …and another myth…
    In an age where every cloth item in a household needed sewing and precise fit was crucial to a garment being considered acceptably “well made”, it was not only the “wealthy few” who made use of dress-makers and tailors. Folks would be more inclined to re-make, repair, and hand on garments to make their clothing dollar go further. Dress-makers offered many services that helped less affluent clients afford professionally made clothing.

  3. Victoria says:

    While I agree with you about left and right buttoning conclusion, I take some issue with your statement, “First of all, buttons are almost never found on women’s clothing before the nineteenth century. Mens’ clothing, yes, but women used ties, hooks, and other fasteners.” Buttons on women’s clothing fell in and out of fashion as the centuries went on and depended more on the time and location than on the genderization of fastenings. The location, material, and number of buttons vary. Cloth, metal, thread wrapped were all used on the front and sleeves of women’s clothing. Many of the choices in buttons were dictated by cost. Cloth buttons are the cheapest whereas threadwrapped and metal buttons are more costly.
    A (very!) brief survey* of women’s clothing illustrates this:

    14th century
    http://www.cottesimple.com/love_layers/cotehardie_collection.html
    http://www.silkewerk.com/images/luttrell1.jpg (on sleeves)

    15th century
    http://visualiseur.bnf.fr/ConsulterElementNum?O=IFN-8100143&E=JPEG&Deb=20&Fin=20&Param=C (again, on sleeves)

    16th century
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/77/Gripsholm_Elizabeth.jpg (English)
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bb/Pourbus_lady_pomander.jpg (Flemish)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Isabella_de_medici.jpg (Italian)

    17th century
    http://www.weissgallery.com/French-School-circa-1620s-group-figures-the-Commedia-dell%E2%80%99arte-making-music-DesktopDefault.aspx?tabid=52&tabindex=51&objectid=415523&categoryid=2636 (French)
    http://www.weissgallery.com/Daniel-Mytens-1590-1647-Lady-Mary-Feilding-Countess-Aran-later-Marchioness-and-Duchess-Hamilton-1613-1638-DesktopDefault.aspx?tabid=52&tabindex=51&objectid=38219&categoryid=2636 (English)
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/15/Diego_Vel%C3%A1zquez_030.jpg (Spanish)

    18th century
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Batoni_lady_mary_fox.jpg (French)
    http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/20012072?rpp=20&pg=1&ao=on&ft=Margaret+Strahan&when=A.D.+1600-1800&what=Paintings&pos=4 (American)

    These are all just visual examples of buttons on women’s clothing. Written records also illustrates buttons being bought and made for women’s clothing before the 19th century.

    To sum up: I really ❤ buttons!

    Thanks for the awesome posts,
    Victoria

    (*Side note: One thing I did not include here is examples of women's hunting and riding outfits. These were usually festooned with buttons, but as they were purposefully based on men's clothing styles, they were ignored for the sake of argument.)

    • marymiley says:

      Wow, Victoria, what a great list of illustrations! I understand your point. I didn’t mean to suggest that there were no examples of buttons on women’s clothing in America before the nineteenth century–of course there were buttons on some women’s clothing in the 17th and 18th centuries, but, according to the curators I spoke with, other fasteners were more common. Perhaps I overstated their findings when I wrote that the curators said they “almost never” saw buttons on 17th and 18th-c. women’s clothing. I’ll change the wording to “seldom,” which I think addresses your point and makes the claim more accurate.

    • David Jones says:

      maybe I am wrong but both dresses appear to be left over right the male way.

  4. Wasn’t Archduke Ferdinand actually sewn into his suit every day?

  5. Borden says:

    I’m not entirely convinced by the line of reasoning in this “myth”. Working backwards:

    1) I disagree that the issue of whether to dress oneself was a matter of preference. One look at a portrait of Elizabeth I shows that her corsetry and dresses were far more elaborate than her father’s, Henry VIII, and would have been almost impossible for her to put on herself. Likewise, what about traditional wedding dresses which button at the back compared to, say, a man’s morning suit in which everything is buttoned at the front?

    2) There may be truth that the US Civil War, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, led to the first industrially mass-produced uniforms. However, Europe had already been going to war for centuries and needed their own mass-produced military uniforms. I’m not convinced that the 1860s was the first time that the idea for standardised sewing patterns was developed.

    3) Although it may be true that women’s clothes before the 20th century rarely had buttons, the other fastenings still would have needed a decision on whether to close on the right or left. Further, it’s not just buttons subject to the left-v-right convention. Zippers, buckles and wrapping (L over R for men, R over L for women) all follow this distinction, suggesting that the rules transcend, and were likely in effect long before, buttons.

    You may very well be correct that the reason for opposite sides for buttoning has no historically functional justification. However, the reasons given don’t seem to defend the argument irrefutably.

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