Buttoning Buttons: the Gender Divide
I have become self-conscious about buttoning the front of my shirt. The cause is that in most of the fingernails of my right hand the nail itself has become separated from the pink layer right under it, so that the nails have become a kind of off-white and a bit weaker than normal nails. (I haven’t figured out which name to pick from the long internet list of nail ailments, but I do know that my condition is neither a fungus nor some disease—but probably an age phenomenon. And, as a dermatologist told me, nothing can be done about it.
I burden the reader with this account, because surely an explanation is needed as to why I should recently have become so aware of an activity that I have engaged in daily for well over 80 years without thinking about it. It is because, thanks to that imperfect thumbnail, buttoning those shirts has become just a bit slower and more cumbersome.
This awareness also included the fact that I use my right thumb to push the button through the buttonhole; indeed, that in all the front closures of my clothes—sweaters, jackets, coats, etc.—the buttons are arrayed on the left side of the garment to be closed and the buttonholes are on the right, making it natural to use the right thumb to do the pushing, using any other finger would be somewhat more awkward.
Now, as I thought about this, I dimly remembered that women’s clothes button up in the opposite direction of men’s, with the buttonholes on the right wing of a blouse and the buttons on the left. Nobody seems actually to know how this well-entrenched opposite-sided custom arose; the various sites I checked out propose a rich variety of hypotheses. (Take this set as one example of such theories: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/06/mens-womens-shirts-pants-buttons-opposite-sides-start/.
Of all those suppositions I find one to be particularly plausible. According to it, the current pattern for women’s clothes probably became set during the Victorian period when two practices were fairly widespread: first, the clothes worn by middleclass women (and up) could be quite elaborate, with plenty of buttons to push through their holes and, second, that a large proportion of those fine ladies had maids to help them get dressed. It makes sense, accordingly, to have those lady’s maids, facing their mistresses, to use their right hands to perform one of their important tasks.
On the other hand, while no doubt there was a fraction of upper crust males who had a Jeeves to help get their garments on, far more did not use servants for that purpose but did the job themselves. So it makes sense for men’s clothes also to have the right hand take the lead in buttoning up.
But times have changed since the reign of Victoria Regina. In those days and beyond even middle class households had at least one servant, so that there were chores that the lady of the house did not need to perform. Such households with servants are much rarer now, having been replaced by countless labor-saving devices and practices.
But nothing has changed a woman’s need to button her front with the left had doing the work. Moreover, a distinctly larger (if not much larger) proportion of women are right-handed than is the fraction of right-handed men, so that the current buttoning practices negatively affects a very substantial fraction of females.
Specialty stores or websites could be created with wares for male lefties, as there are for oversize men, at least to the degree to which that is economically feasible. But there is no question that reversing the buttoning direction for women’s clothes will benefit the vast majority of right-handed wearers.
Two questions remain. While the economic cost to change manufacturing methods in Bangladesh, Vietnam or in New York’s garment district will be nowhere near as great as converting the US automobile industry to the metric system—which will probably never happen—it is a cost nonetheless. Second, do a sufficient number of women care enough (or care at all) to follow someone who makes it her cause to rid the world of what I take to be a Victorian hangover. In short, is the gain to switch buttoning to the stronger hand great enough to be worth agitating for. While I don’t see it on the horizon, only a broad general discussion can provide the answer.