Why Do Men’s and Women’s Shirts Button on Different Sides?

If you've ever accidentally tried on a shirt intended for the opposite gender, you no doubt figured it out as soon as you tried to button the buttons. Why do clothiers put the buttons for men and women on the opposite side of the shirt?

Everybody has that moment when they realize they don’t know about something that they should probably know about. Whether it’s history, language, science, or cultural phenomena, you’ve felt the stinging personal embarrassment of a moment wherein you realize there’s some common knowledge that isn’t so common. Don’t feel bad; nobody knows everything. Nobody, that is, except me and my sidekick, The Internet!

Somewhere in the world, a confused soul begs the question…

Why Do Men’s and Women’s Shirts Button on Different Sides?

If you’ve ever had to fold the laundry of men and women (or if you’ve ever accidentally put on a piece of women’s clothing in the dressing room at TJ Maxx without realizing it), you’ve invariably noticed that while men’s shirts have their buttons on the right side, women’s shirts have their buttons on the left side. Why is this?

Though there’s no historical record or museum with an exhibit devoted to buttons (and/or factual logic as to why a person’s sex would have anything to do with said buttons’ orientation), most sources seem to cite the same simple rationale that dates back over a century.

Mens’ buttons are on the right side because men have always tended to dress themselves and most men (and women, for that matter) are right-handed.

Womens’ buttons are on the left side because years ago (say, during the Victorian Era), the women that could afford fancy clothing with a bunch of buttons would rely on maids to help dress them. So, if a servant (most of whom, naturally, would be right-handed) is going to routinely buttoning up a shirt/dress for someone else, that servant is going to prefer to have the buttons on their right side (which would be the left side of the garment).

Now you know.

Justin Brown is an artist and writer living in Virginia. He channels most of his enthusiasm into making things for his online art shop, Artness! by Justin Brown. You can keep up to date with him, his worldly adventures, and his dogs by following him on Instagram and on Facebook

  • Russell

    The rational that I heard was that when a couple are driving (the man in the left seat and the women in the right seat) the shirts are set up so each could look down each others shirts. I though this was a funny idea. It is true if you have pretty girl in your car, her shirt is set up so you can look down her blouse.

    • Hammad Afzal

      That is funny, but would not work in countries with right-hand steering.

      • Dexi

        also cars weren’t invented yet.

        • ddtn

          Oh really? Were cars hatched or something? Maybe that’s why they still call some of the hatch-backs?

          Relax…it’s a joke.


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  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

    Haha Russell, that’s a funny idea. I’m glad shirt makers have our best interest at heart 🙂

  • Kurt

    Armour was fashioned so the left fastened over the right to prevent the strike of a right-handed blade from entering the front seam of armour.

  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

    @Kurt, that’s interesting. Why make shirts different for women, though?
    .-= Andrew´s last blog ..The Boat Shoe: Primer Approved =-.

    • martinbarrdavid

      I agree, we use armour anymore. So we don’t need to have buttons on different sides anymore.

    • martinbarrdavid

      So retailers know who to rip off.

  • Barrett

    Also, men’s jackets button on the right so that when drawing a sword (worn on the left hip) the hilt wouldn’t snag on the seam.

    I still don’t know why women’s shirs are different, though.

  • Ricky

    Wow! I have never realized that, I had to go make sure though, by checking my girlfriends button up shirts, but that is weird that they aren’t the same,

  • Trey

    Kurt and Barrett have great insight..

    Even walking on the street side of a woman goes back to historical days when people would empty their chamber pots out the window.. The woman walks closer to the buildings, so she’s shielded by the eaves of the roofs..

    • martinbarrdavid

      We have sewe systems, now so that doesn’t matter.

  • criolle johnny

    Kurt is right, also a man could unbutton his coat and draw his sword at the same time. Women did not carry swords.

    • eon

      in some cultures they did

  • Scott

    As far as I can tell, use of multiple button to close a neckline of a garment didn’t become common in European dress until sometime after 1200. When they were introduced widely, they were not only decorative and costly, but some countries had laws limiting them only to the upper classes. In many European painting I have looked at over the period rom the 1300s till about 1900, I see very few examples where women wore shirt like garments that buttoned up the front. Most show women wearing open necked blouse like tops without a front opening, or high necked blouses that fastened in the back. Especially with the advent of the corset, women’s clothing seems to have generally fastened in the back. Whether the fronts were kept clear of buttons for practical reasons having to do with child care or other domestic pursuits, or for purely esthetic reasons I can’t say. But it is probably true that if your clothing fastens in the back, you will need to rely on someone else to help you dress, and in that case the argument that men’s and women’ buttons differed to make each easiest for a right handed dresser (self in the case of men, other in the case of women) makes sense. Since women’s tops that button up the front seem to be relatively recent, the traditions of button placement may have already been standardized from when they were in the back, and never changed.

    • David Pattinson

      The positioning of the buttons on the back of a garment makes sense even for a woman dressing herself. As she reaches behind, the buttons will be in her right hand, making them easier to fasten.

      • martinbarrdavid

        But haven’t those rear fasterners been replaced by a zipper?

        • Kaja Knudsen

          Dresses usually have zippers, while corsets actually are still often laced up. While the new types of corsets often have lace-up in the back and a hidden zipper on one of the sides.

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  • Awesome

    NO, you t tt ttt tools! It’s so we can tell who’s gay like Ellen: she has the buttons on the wrong side so she buys men’s shirts.

  • Vikas

    I think its a strategy by garment companies to ensure that they can differentiate their customers by gender and charge them accordingly 🙂

    • martinbarrdavid

      I would’ve thought anti-druscrimination laws would put a stop to that.

  • kyra

    I always heard it was so dry cleaners had an easy way to determine whether to charge a fair price (mens shirts) or double it for women’s shirts.

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  • Rich

    I was told that it was this way so that a man’s right hand would be free to draw his sword (or draw his gun), i.e. he can unbutton his shirt using his left hand!

  • Cdm99

    It also makes it easier for the men to undress the women!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1350225867 Neil Stowe

       finally the fucking answer. just what i was thinking. a Victorian thing for sure

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  • kenrubenstein

    Nonsense, they did it to torment cross-dressers.

  • eon3000

    so what if a home made shirt had been made with buttons to the left and given to a guy?

  • Bellar

    Dang, this article needs an editor. The question of the piece is asked no less than four or five times before we get to anything resembling an answer.

  • Clewless T

    We learnt in history at primary school that it was so men could draw a sword. The same reason why spiral staircases in castles are always the same way round, it gives the person on top the advantage assuming this is the person (man) defending the castle. Everything was designed with a man in mind. Therefore it would make complete sense that women’s buttons are designed for easy access to a man.

    • Cxoxo Bxoxo

      yes and i was always told it was the reason the man sleeps on the right side of the bed , to be able to grab his gun to defend his family.

    • martinbarrdavid

      Suring in this stainage it would piss off the women, they lookafter themselves.

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  • 彌生月

    But i’m confused. Now in 21 century why do still the same design as the 17 century ? Is it inconvenient for the tailor to do the shirt ?

    • martinbarrdavid

      Jackpot, it would be cheaper to design clothes with buttons on the same side for both men & women .

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  • Gnosis be Known

    Its bc man is represented by the right side masculine and woman the left side. The rest is just add on happenings.

  • Pat

    Very helpful!! 🙂 I thought I had an article of womans clothing haha XD

  • Brigita

    I also heard about wholesale men clothing and wholesale women clothing is set up so each could look down each others shirts.

    • martinbarrdavid

      Wouldn’t the woman slap the man with a lawsuit.

  • Jollycoptor

    Thumbs up if Ace Attorney brought you to this.

  • Cynthia Farrington

    Its so men can unbutton a woman’s top without getting all confused and seeming incompetent.

    • martinbarrdavid

      Women can undress themselves.

  • Emil

    I’m left handed and I love having the buttons on my right, because most of the job is done with the buttonhole and not the actual button. So I can use my left hand for that. I actually thought it’s more complicated for right-handed people.

  • Emil

    I’m left handed and I love having the buttons on my right, because most of the job is done with the buttonhole and not the actual button. So I can use my left hand for that. I actually thought it’s more complicated for right-handed people.

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  • Nancy Mayer

    Only problem is that men’s shirts didn’t open all the way down the front until late Victorian days when men had ceased wearing swords. Also women didn’t have blouses that buttoned down the front until about the time of the Gibson girl , also in late Victorian days. One story was that a man who made shirts for men and blouses for women put the buttons on the opposite sides so that they could easily be sorted . That expolanation makes the most sense.

  • deviheart13

    I’ve heard this theory before but it still makes no sense to me. At the time when buttons came out they were mostly for decoration just sewn into place, women’s clothing was complicated by things like ties, the sheer amounts of heavy fabric, the metal cages that kept the skirt puffy looking, not buttons. Even men’s buttons were decorative at first, but men went had to fight so buttons became more functional on shirts, not dresses. Women didn’t start wearing shirts with buttons till near the beginning of the 20th century 7 centuries later and those were working class women, they didn’t have people to put there clothes on them. Rich women still preferred dresses with corsets that you tie and buttons had become common so dresses weren’t completely decked out with them anymore(with exceptions to the avante garde).

    And yes, i have seen a couple of early dresses which were covered in buttons going in every direction, each in it’s hole, but at this time dresses were commissioned and made just for the lady or young boy (prepubescent boys wearing dresses and skirt was common in European society until about WWI) So why, when shirts began being mass produced for men and women, would a Tailor, Seamstress, or Company make one set of shirts left buttoned and then take time to make sure the other set of the exact same shirt was right buttoned, back then making clothes still took a lot of work, so it made no sense to take time to waste putting buttons on a shirt that was meant for working class women anyway, even if it was “traditional”.

    Its even more hilarious now that most women i know will help there man or small boy with his buttons. I’ve worn hundreds of church dresses and only a handful had buttons that i needed help with, my mother buttoned my brothers shirt every Sunday. Even in media, the chick helps her man with the top button and straightens his tie, has anyone ever seen a women who needs or even gets help with her buttons now a days.

    And it may seem like i’m too heated over buttons, but I am female and they are annoying, so the first time i heard that my shirt was made specifically to be difficult for me to wear, i was a bit upset. Especially since it completely sexist for someone for shirts to be labeled in such a way(at least suits have a reason to be labeled, they are made to be fitted), So i would like to find an actual logical reason for having to put up with this, not just one that sounds like it make sense so every one goes with it. That or things need to change.

    The next question you can ask yourself, why did men stop wearing dresses, considering all that gets bunched up down there, they’re more useful for you guys then us. Less restrictive and if your 13th century going commando, easier access. Maybe in the future gender neutrality will see the reemergence of freedom in men’s clothing. Because the true kings wore dresses, pretty much all of them.

  • martinbarrdavid

    This scam predates the invention of dry cleaning.

    To all those women out there if don’t want to be ripped off when buying clothes venture into the menswear section or menswear store, same goes when your buying shoes.

  • Gwilos

    Because the gladiators, soldiers or horseback riders in the early days had to dress in haste while going to war, they had the buttons sewn on the right side. This was to allow for them having to hold their weapons in the right hand, or their horse’s reins. That’s how I heard it since I was very young.

  • Kaja Knudsen

    I’m gonna be a bad-ass riot and put on the buttons on the right side on my new cape – because I put on my own clothing (and I’m right-handed) and that makes it easier to button it up. 😉
    Thank you for the article. It’s interesting to know how it started.

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