Weirdest thing. Went to the market the other day. There’s a little Pakistani guy there with a big smile and a barrowload of clothes labelled ‘grandes marques’. Basically, it means that the stuff that’s left over from sales and outlets and has exhausted all other merchandising opportunities, ends up in his barrow. Put another way, a brand label shirt costing €215 can be bought for €12.50. Or, in my case a Ralph Lauren cardigan for €20. Being a Pensioner (gaaah!) thus financially a tad more challenged than formerly, I seize on the three-for-two bargains and other cheapskate opportunities. But, when I got it home, I noticed that the buttons are on the ‘wrong’ side. Left for ladies, right for gents. It’s for a (rather large) girl. Stop sniggering, because it isn’t. It’s androgynous, cut and tailored exactly as I might have expected had it been bought from a hanger in the quietly elegant male environment where it once resided and with a much weightier price tag. So, what’s with this about buttons? Every day, millions of people are walking around with these little reminders of gender inequality emblazoned on their chests. There are different theories as to why the discrepancy exists in the first place, but all of them come down to this: The Button Differential is a relic of an old tradition that we have ported, rather unthinkingly, into the contemporary world. Let’s start with men’s shirts: buttons on the right placket, the open flap on the left. The most common explanation comes from the fact that clothing, for wealthy men, often included weaponry. Since most men held swords in their right hands, it was more convenient and quicker to use their left hand for unbuttoning. You can see evidence of that in portraiture. All those hand-in-waistcoat pictures popular in the 19th century? They involve, generally, the slipping of hand into an open area of the coat, right-to-left.
You could also see the right-button orientation as a holdover from warfare more directly. “To ensure that an enemy’s lance point would not slip between the plates,” curators write in The Art of Chivalry: European Arms and Armor from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “they overlapped from left to right, since it was standard fighting practice that the left side, protected by the shield, was turned toward the enemy. Thus, men’s jackets button left to right even to the present day.” OK. So that goes some way to explain why men’s buttons are on the right. But then, why are women’s on the left?
One theory: babies. Given right-hand dominance, women tend to hold their infants in their left arms, keeping their right arms relatively free. So shirts whose open flap is on the right makes it easier for them to open with those free hands for breastfeeding, on the opposite side, as it were. Think about it for a moment, gents. Alternatively, blame Napoleon. Women activists used to mimic his famous pose with the hand inside the waistcoat, so he ordered tailors to make ladies clothing with buttons on the other side so they couldn’t mock him any more.
So, there we are. A simple and conveniently watertight argument. Unless, of course, you happen to be a Southpaw, when presumably you get to wear your sister’s clothes.