September 7, 2010

For Carolyn

In her post this morning (well, morning for me, at least), fellow blogger Carolyn posed the question of why closures on womenswear are right over left, while those on menswear are left over right.There some commonly given answers to this, and her commenters, including yours truly, faithfully provided these: 1. men dressed themselves, women were dressed, making this closure easier for their usually right-handed maids or 2. It was a decency thing, this way the person helping a lady onto her horse, or holding the animal while she was mounted side-saddle couldn't peek between the buttons of her riding clothes. Those are the ones I knew. But they raise questions. Which way would you sit when riding side-saddle? How about the closures on the maid's dress? And when did this closure-rule start anyway?

I could do something to answer the last question. I own a book on 19th century fashion, but as I had expected, all the clothes in it closed the way we would expect now: left over right for men, right over left for women.
Luckily, I own another book on historical costume: the great 'Costume in detail' by Nancy Bradfield. This book is almost literally overflowing with detailed drawings of clothes from 1730 to 1930, also showing the insides and undergarments which you normally don't get to see. I can recommend it if you're a clothing, pattern and history geek like me.
What I found there was interesting.

This ladies' riding jacket, dated between 1720 and 1750, closes left over right.

So does this unusual button-fronted stomacher from 1766.

And this coat from 1828 as well.

The jacket and the coat both seem to be utilitarian garments. Obviously cut for women, but less decorative than the fashion items of their times, obviously ment for outdoor activity and inspired by menswear in their details. Of course, the normal dress of the 18th century was open-fronted with petticoats underneath and a stomacher covering the chest between the edges of the dress. There simply were no overlapping closures in fashionable ladies' clothes. The buttoned stomacher is pictured with the comment that it's a highly unusual item.
The coat is from a time when, after a few decades of empire-line dresses, the dress waist was starting to return to the position of the natural waist. Of the empire-line items, there are no clear images showing button closures, but surplice bodices are closed left over right.
After 1835, small waists and big skirts are back and this time, they are often separated. 'Dresses' are now in many cases bodices with separate skirts. And these bodices are sometimes closed at the front, with buttons. And if so, they are closed right over left, like in this 1865 example.

So, that's it then. The 'button-rule' is apperently a 19th century invention, made when buttoned clothes for women were starting to become common for every day wear. It seems that, historically, button closures entered womenswear as a menswear inspired fashion. Much like the left over right button flies on women's jeans today (other women's trousers with fly fronts usually close right over left and what's the point of a button fly for a woman?)
They were copied as they were as long as they were only used for special outdoor kit, but it seems that when they started to be seen a lot, a 'female variation' was made.
Does anyone know whether it is really in the Bible that women are not allowed to wear men's clothes? I know people believed this in the Middle Ages, and for some time after that. It was one of the reasons Joan of Arc was convicted as a witch and a heretic. That would explain the need to differentiate. (of course I'm aware that in many christian groups today, women don't wear trousers. I just don't know where biblical law meet time-honored tradition in this case)

Well, that's my twopence on the button-rule. I hope I satisfied some curiosity, but I think I mainly raised more questions. I welcome your insight in this matter!


  1. Chanel wore a lot of men´s wear as well.
    But the dressing etiquette goes that women´s buttoning goes suchly that right over left. Button flies and suches are commonly the same to both sexes only because it´s a cheaper to produce pants in a factory that makes the same kinds of closures to all of their pantsies. Also, it is a sign of mass- production. Most clothes are ready- to- wear these days- sadly.
    But if a lady steps into a proper atelier, she´ll land with dresspants that have flies the right way. As will he have his flies sewn the proper way by his tailor. This is how I was taught and I sew everything according to those preaches. I´m old school too. Besides, I quite like the thought of not having the nasty label of mass production on me or my clothes.

  2. I believe there really is some kind of verse in the Bible that says so, but I have no idea where. I suspect it's in the Old Testament, but I could be wrong.
    (Note: believe in this case means "I have a feeling that", not the belief kind of believe...)

    And yes, this raises more questions. How about medieval buttoned kirtles/cotes/cotehardies? I should try to look into this!

  3. I know that men's military uniforms in the USA follow the left over right so that the opening for the fly and the shirt are on the same side. It creates a cleaner line down the center of the uniform and is easy to notice if it isn't done correctly. Basically, it's for uniformity and 'cleanliness'.

  4. Deuteronomy 22: "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God."

    The Hebrew has "The woman shall not carry a man's tool," which can be parsed as forbidding women from carrying weapons. In any case the gist is that people should stay put within the traditional confines of their gender.

  5. This is absolutely fantastic, Lauriana, thankyou so much for this post. Fascinating stuff! I think you certainly helped answer my question, that specifically different women's buttoning seemed to come into being in the mid 1800's, possibly as a more literal interpretation of the Bible became fashionable all over again (a phenomenon that has waxed and waned in popularity from time to time)
    And I've never ever heard of a stomacher before! What an unusual concept, how did it attach elsewhere? Is it just a front-cover or is it a kind of under-waistcoat with a back to it? Fascinating.
    I'm not sure why Lily above bothered singling out mention of US mens' military uniform customs, as her observation just seems to be the normal buttoning method for ALL of western men's clothing, not specifically US mens' military... and it's the difference for women and the reasoning behind this that is of interest here anyway.
    My father made the simple observation that it is so mens' and womens' shirts can be differentiated straight away with a quick and cursory glance, making sorting and selecting for the manufacturer and shopkeeper as well as the consumer much easier... which I agree doesn't explain how the custom came into being but perhaps provides a good reason for why it is continued...

  6. Re. the side-saddle theory, a quick google of images shows MOST women riding sidesaddle with their legs to the horse's left. (Isn't there a tradition in riding about always mounting from a particular side? is it the horse's left?). However, for this position, the right-over-left closure seems like it would gape most visibly, wouldn't it? If so, scratch that one...

    I vote for random fixation in the mid 1800s followed by slavish, un-thinking obedience to tradition. Once something gets tagged as "feminine" it can be very hard to shift it, I think. Also it does seem like the sort of bizarre minutiae the Victorians would think up, doesn't it? ;)

    I accidentally made the fly on my first pair of pants close the "ladies" way (after years of having normal, guy-closing jeans) and it drives me nuts. ;)

  7. I can't add much to the button theories but yes, you always mount a horse from the left, so if riding side saddle you'd have both legs on the left. It wouldn't make much sense to get on the left and have to throw both legs to the right now would it LOL.

  8. I'm going to very geeky now. Feel free to ignore.

    Cultures often define themselves as having the divinely correct rules of separating "right" from "wrong", "good" from "bad", "dirt" from "clean", "us" from "them" etc. Some anthropologists believe this is a fundamental aspect of what constitutes culture. Often the attention to the details of these separating and cathegorating rules increase when there is some kind of pressure, conflict and change happening to the stability of the culture.

    In the Old Testaments Moseic laws, you have all these old rules of separation relating to gender, sex, menstruation and procreation (very important!), animal husbandry, carpentry and housebuilding, food (also very important!), and clothing and hair. Clothing is to be separated as to gender, but another Biblical rule is that mixing different types of fiber and cloth on the body is also forbidden. So you can wear either linnen or wool, but not both at the same time. I don't have the time to look up the exact verse, but check out for a very interesting and well written take on the Biblical rules - including clothing rules.

  9. Lauriana, Kendra of Démodé has just written a post about 18th century riding habits and mentions a book that says they all buttoned left over right. i though you'd like her post...