Gender Buttons

Gender Buttons

Victorian Dress: Men in Morning Dress from 1840 and Two Women in Visiting Dresses from 1852. 

There are some rules in the construction of fashion which are simply accepted and never questioned. Some are long lost traditions that have ingrained themselves in the way that clothes are made, for reasons which are still relevant. Some rules once served a practical purpose that has long since been forgotten.

One of these traditions is the way that the majority of clothing is buttoned in such a gender specific way:

  • Womens garments are buttoned right over left. Buttonholes are in the right hand side of the garment.
  • Mens garments are buttoned left over right. Buttonholes are in the left hand side of the garment.

There appears to be a number of myths and reasons historically to attempt to explain why this tradition was formed. At times the reasoning is based on the idea that rich Victorian women would have been dressed by their maids, and so the buttoning would have been easier to do if the button and buttonholes were the opposite of their original “mens” position. Though this seems a plausible reason, it hardly seems an insurmountable problem to have to button a garment from the other side. Maybe the women did it as a secret sign of class to each other – if a ladies buttonholes were in reverse then she was obviously being dressed by someone else.

Another more practical reason that has been rumoured is that the tradition of mens buttoning links back to uniforms worn in the military. In this theory the positioning of the buttonholes was inspired by the direction of the overlapping joins on armour, which was designed so as not to expose a weak area. This reason would fit with the way that mens jackets are traditionally buttoned, as the left side would wrap over the right, leaving any open edge to be only visible from behind if a typically right handed person fights with their left shoulder forward.

Another reason is based on the practicality of a woman riding side saddle. Supposedly a woman would ride with her legs over the left side of a horse, leaning her right shoulder forward. By having “female” buttoning of right over left, she would be less likely to have her blouse blow open in the wind. A more domestic reason is that the right over left buttoning was easier for women when breastfeeding, as they typically nursed on their left side, closest to their heart.

Considering the fact that there is so much confusion over this matter it is a wonder that the tradition has survived for as long as it has. The majority of designers adhere to the tradition, though increasingly womens trousers and jeans are done in the same way as mens.

Because of all this, buttoning can also be used as small a detail to play on gender stereotypes and androgyny. Comme des Garçons was one such collection that was shown recently whose buttons and buttonholes were used on both sides of the garments, and due to the half and half nature of the clothes this seems as much an act of practicality as it one of gender subversion.

Comme des Garçons, AW11, Paris.

Catwalk images»

Victorian images from FashionEra» and TMSArchives»

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