Why Do Men’s and Women’s Clothes Have Buttons On Opposite Sides?

You might never have noticed or thought about this until someone else brought it up, but yes, women’s clothes have buttons on the left side and men’s clothes have buttons on the right side. Or you saw that episode of The Office and want to know how everyone immediately figured out Michael was wearing a women’s suit. It’s the buttons, but why do men’s and women’s clothes have buttons on opposite sides?

Rich People Stuff

If you know a thing or two about Victorian and Renaissance fashion, you know that clothing was a lot more complicated. For the wealthy, anyway. Wealthy women generally did not dress themselves, instead having a servant do it. On the other hand, wealthy men were presumed to dress themselves, so mirroring button placement aligns with the majority of people being right-handed. 

The tradition of western men’s clothing having right-sided buttons might also have something to do with European warfare—all the way back when people were still regularly fighting with swords and lances. If you’ve ever worn a button-down shirt before, you know the nature of buttons means there’s going to be a gap on one side where the halves of your shirt overlap. Buttons on the right side? Then the gap’s on the right side too. 

Soldiers with shields often stood with their left side forward, so having the gaps in their buttoned jackets sit on the right side would prevent pointy metal objects from slipping in between their buttons. 

Honestly, for the most part, you can attribute a lot of contemporary western men’s fashion to the military. Napoleonic men’s fashion inherited all those fancy gold buttons, and red was a popular color during the Victorian Era thanks to British redcoats. Military fashion became pretty unisex during WWI too, women’s trench coats were broadly adapted from military uniforms. 

Taboos about women dressing like men may have played a role in the tradition persisting, since people have largely stopped having servants dress them for… a while now. Dressing like a man as a woman used to be illegal, so having gendered buttons may have served as a defense to “you’re wearing men’s clothes.” 

There’s this wild thing about Napoleon

Okay this one… probably isn’t true but it’s really funny to imagine it for a second. There’s a theory without many good sources that Napoleon had women’s clothes button on the opposite side because of that pose he used to do. You know that thing where he’d stuff his right hand in his waistcoat? The theory holds that women made fun of Napoleon for it and he wanted them to stop. Again, we couldn’t find any reputable sources for this but it’s funny and we can talk about this hand-in-waistcoat pose thing. 

 The hand-in-waistcoat pose was popular for portraits in the 18th and 19th centuries to symbolize leadership—it’s nowhere near exclusive to Napoleon but he’s pretty associated with it. The pose has its roots in classic Greek antiquity, when a guy named Aeschines decided that speaking with your arm outside your clothes was disrespectful. 

See if you know your fashion logos here.