Button Button (1)

September 17, 1999 et seq.

Why do men's shirts button opposite from women's blouses?

Let us begin our address to this question with a brief history of the button. The stimulus seems to be the invention of tailoring -- which is the disassembly of whole cloth to be assembled again in the shape (more or less) of the human form. Tailored clothing has its origin in under-armor padding, and is an imitation of the carapace of armor in civilian dress. What is taken apart to be reassembled by the tailor, must similarly be taken apart by the wearer in order to be put on and taken off. Thus, a need for fasteners arises, theretofore limited to a broche or sash, and is dealt with in various ways. Buttons make a functional appearance by ones and twos as fastenings on men's blouses, and by the middle of the 16th century are apparent in great profusion on male clothing. Though women's clothing follows the example of men's in adopting tailoring, it seems that the button per se was an inviolate masculine preserve for three hundred years and more. Looked at from this angle, the button and button hole take on a decidedly Freudian aspect.

It is unlikely that we will discover the terminus ante quem of the button, but artistic evidence leads us to the conclusion that it arose as an upper-class men's collar fastening in the early 1400s. By 1500, the button is exclusively male, fully developed and the direction of opening is standardized so as not to interfere with drawing a sword over the left hip with the right hand. (2)

Some hint of the origin of the button my be found in a drawing by Gentile Bellini (Venetian, 1429/30 - 1507) of a Turk dated about 1475 In this drawing the Turk wears a garment with a loose, rolled collar and buttons up the front, though with a button-and-loop arrangement. Bellini had been dispatched on a friendly mission to the court of the sultan Mohammed II, in Constantinople, where he made a number of paintings and returned after a year with riches, honor, and some fine drawings. Absent any other source, I conjecture that the button originates in the East and migrates West at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance.

The earliest portrayal of a Western button (thus far discovered by the author) on a man's costume is in a silverpoint drawing of Cardinal Albergati (Dresden, Staatliche Kunstammlungen) by Jan van Eyck (1380//90 - 1441). The cardinal is portrayed wearing a blouse-like garment, with a loose, gently rolled collar, fastened at the throat with two small buttons, one above the other. The opening is to the right.

A similarly early portrayal of a button on female dress is a pen and ink drawing from the school of Hugo van der Goes (1440? - 1482) of a kneeling woman (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library) in which the traditional fairy princess getup is clearly buttoned up the front with five round buttons. The opening seems to be up the center, which leads to a guess that it is a button-and-loop rather than a button-and-button-hole arrangement. An engraving by the German Martin Shongauer (d, 1491) clearly portrays a woman's garment fastened with buttons, and the opening is the opposite from masculine garb. (3) So far as I can tell, these are the sole artistic representations of functional buttons on women's clothing for several hundred years.

Though present in art as early as the mid-1440s, the button takes a while to catch on. Sandro Botticelli's (Florentine, 1444-1510) "Portrait of a Man with a Medal" (c. 1475) shows a blouse-like garment held together at the throat by a string tied just like a shoelace. His painting in the Sistine Chapel "The Purification of the Leper and the Temptation of Christ" (c. 1481) shows an unlaced blouse, fastened at the top, in which the laces go through holes on the left, then are tied through loops on the right. A painting by the Master of the Griselda Legend (Umbrian-Sienese active late XV century) "Eunestos of Tanagra" (c. 1495 -1500) indicates masculine clothing that is held together with bows and sashes. Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, 1472-1553) portrays "A Prince of Saxony" (1517) whose waistcoat is fastened with buttons which do not go through buttonholes, but through loops on the opposite side of the opening.

Alvise Vivarini (c. 1457 - 1503) portrays a man wearing a cap (charcoal on paper, Frankfort-on-Main, Staedel Art Institute) whose band-collared shirt is fastened with a row of small, closely spaced buttons, and whose outer garment is adorned with what appear to be ornamental buttons. The shirt opens to the right. Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431 - 1506) drew a head of a man (black chalk and wash on paper, Oxford, Christ Church) indicating a banded collar undershirt which is fastened at the throat with two small buttons. The opening is to the right.

Hans Holbein's (German, 1497-1543) portrait of Sir Brian Tuke (1527) shows a large gold collar button, opening to the left. A portrait by Pontormo (Florentine, 1494-1556) of Ugolino Martelli (c. 1545/50) indicates a collar held together at the throat with two buttons, opening to the right. Titian (Venetian, c. 1477-1576) clearly shows buttons on his portraits of Cardinal Pietro Bembo (c. 1540) and Ranuccio Farnese (1542). Both portraits have a profusion of buttons, and in both the opening is to the right. A sculpture entitled "A Jurist" (c. 1550) from the Paduan School, depicts a buttoned waistcoat, opening to the right.

Paintings of the 18th and early 19th centuries indicate buttons in lavish profusion on the costume, both civilian and military, of men. All of the buttoned garments open to the right, as though all men might at any time gird themselves for battle. I can detect no use of buttons in any of the paintings of women. Garments are fastened with ribbons, clasps, brooches, loops and bows, hooks and eyes, but never a button in sight. On a painting by Winthrop Chandler (American, 1747-1790) of Captain Samuel Chandler (c. 1780) I count 20 buttons, and hidden from view there must at the least be 14 more. On his portrait of Mrs. Samuel Chandler, painted at about the same time, there are none. In Jaques-Louis David's (French, 1748-1835) famous portrait of Napoleon (1812) 32 buttons are evident or can be inferred. No buttons are evident on David's paintings of women.

In keeping with the masculine nature of the button, its transition to feminine clothing seems to be by way of riding costume. In a small chalk sketch of three figures (Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett) by Antoine Watteau (1684 - 1721), the central is of a woman wearing a riding skirt and what appears to be a man's full-bottomed coat (the button holes are on the left). The coat is fastened at the waist with one large button. On her left hand perches a falcon or hawk (the drawing is vague in this detail, as it is also for the woman's head and hands) and her right arm cradles a long-barreled firearm. The implication of this singular representation of a woman in a man's coat is that she is hunting, which is a masculine preserve, and is therefore accoutered like a man. The images on either side are two different views of one woman in the ordinary "Watteau Pleat" dress, which bears no resemblance to the clothing of the central figure.

Riding itself was popularized among the female upper class by Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Victoria, who ascended to the throne in 1837, was the very paragon of bourgeoise virtue in an era when European and American women were more enslaved to fashion than any time since. As in the sketch of the huntress by Watteau, women's riding costume is masculinized from the head to the waist. That a woman should so far unsex herself as to wear a bifurcated garment was simply unthinkable, and women always rode side-saddle. (4) Therefore, a woman's riding habit consisted of a man's top hat with a veil tacked on to it, a man's collar and tie, a man's coat and waistcoat and a voluminous skirt. The sole difference between the riding costume of Watteau's Diana and that of Victoria's was the side on which the buttonhole was placed. Whereas men's garments (in paintings, at least) opened to the right, women's opened to the left.

Ackermann's Repository, published in London between 1819 and 1829, published some 450 fashion plates which were meant to inform English ladies of the latest styles and to serve as a dressmaker's guide. Women's clothing from 1825 is suddenly profusely buttoned, and the opening indicated is the same as on men's garments, though the buttons are seemingly more ornamental than functional. The source of this may be found in the abrupt change in women's fashions, from the loose chemise-like Empire style, in which the waist is de-emphasized to the point of non-existence, to the tight, tailored clothing that predominates in women's fashions throughout the rest of the century. A drawing by Gerhardt Wilhelm von Reutern (1794 - 1865) indicates two women dressed eerily alike, saving the mirror image of the opening of their buttoned, tailored garments. This may be an artistic distortion (indeed, one dress has more buttons than buttonholes) but the tight garment with both ornamental and functional buttons appears at the same moment in Willingshausen and London alike.

Tailored clothing needs fasteners, and where bows and sashes will do with looser garments, the button--with its overtones of militarism and masculine power--takes center stage until the suffragettes and flappers again engage in a bitter struggle for equality between the sexes. That won, we encounter the next stage in the evolution of feminine couture, the complete adoption of masculine costume. All that remains is the direction of the opening, and even then on feminine or feminized garments only. (5)

Women's garments that button up the back also open to the left. Men's clothing never buttoned up the back, though on men's most formal clothing--white tie and tails (swallowtail coat, tail coat, clawhammer coat)--there is a vestigial remnant of equestrian application of buttons on the back to hold the long tails while riding. The button hole on the tail of the coat has disappeared, however. These buttons are also often found on men's long overcoats.

There is no reason to believe that Frederick the Great (ruler of Prussia from 1740 to 1786) caused buttons to be sewn onto his soldier's clothing to prevent them from wiping their noses on their sleeves. Though it is a good story, earlier paintings of men wearing buttons on their sleeves make this fanciful explanation difficult to accept. The coat sleeve is unbuttoned in a painting by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, (French 1699-1779, "The House of Cards, c. 1735); and a man wearing a coat with many buttons as fasteners to a close-fitting lower sleeve (Franz Hals, Dutch c. 1580-1666, "Portrait of an Officer, c. 1640) show functional usage well before that date. Well-tailored men's suits actually button at the sleeve, though these buttons are not meant to open or close, any more than the lapel button (surviving mainly as a button hole with no corresponding button opposite) is meant to close the suit at the throat. The button hole is a useful place to put a flower or society pin, and that is indeed the use it occupies. In cheaper suits, the button hole is not opened, but is merely a sewn ornament. The common windbreaker and similar Eisenhower-style short jackets actually do button functonally at the cuff and collar.

From 1830 onward we find confirmation of the trans-sexual migration of the button in photographs, which have the great virtue of showing real people in real clothing, as opposed to the somewhat suspect presentation of idealized people in idealized (or wholly imaginary) garments. Thereafter, the button is candidly portrayed as part of ordinary men's and women's clothing in both photography and fine art.

Gustav Courbet's (French, 1819-1877) "Portrait of a Young Girl" (1857) shows a heavy coat fastened near the collar with a strap, anchored with a large button on either side.

Edouard Manet's (French, 1832-1883) painting "The Plum" (c. 1877) portrays a young woman whose dress shows two large buttons on the front, opening to the left. She also appears to be smoking a cigarette. His painting of Madame Michel-Lévy (1882) portrays a tightly-corseted and profusely be-buttoned woman. The opening is to the left. August Renoir's (French, 1841-1919) painting "Girl with a Watering Can" (1876) is of a little girl of about four years. Her shoes are buttoned (though perhaps with a hook-and-eye arrangement) and her dress has no less than eleven large buttons (probably more decorative than functional) up the front. The button has completed its journey.

Men's clothing, in the form of military uniforms, was both mass-produced and standardized, and this significantly predates the mass-production of other clothing. Distinctive, uniform, military clothing can be dated from Parliament's "own" army of 1645, where the costume was of ordinary civilian fashion but with the uniform color throughout the army of red coats and regimental facings of various colors. Military uniforms employed such a lavish profusion of buttons that the button itself came to be associated, at least in the minds of the Amish, with pride and militarism, and they in consequence prohibit the use of buttons on their clothing to this very day. (6) Men's buttoned clothing, originating in a sword-carrying society, opened in such a way that when the right hand reached over to the left side of the body, the sword would not snag on an opening in the garment as it was drawn. Men abandon the wearing of swords (except with dress military uniform) at almost the same time as they adopt modern fashion, which is commonly associated with Beau Brummell (1778-1840). A friend of the prince regent (later George IV), he popularized dark, simply cut clothes, elaborate neckwear, and trousers rather than breeches.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the 19th century equestrienne modified the masculine form of dress in a subtle way: she reversed the opening of the buttoned garment. Why this was, I cannot say. However, the nineteenth century was one marked to a great extent by social theories, foremost among which was the notion that men and women are and should be different; in fact, as different as possible; in fact, different in every particular. Dress is the most convenient and visible way of showing that people are different from one another, and it is not surprising that the clothing of men and women throughout the nineteenth century makes them appear to belong to different species.

Photographs of California's hopeful '49ers clearly indicate that civilian fashion is not yet fully standardized insofar as the direction of opening is concerned. Paintings can regularize that which is not in reality regular, whereas photographs do not alter these small matters.

Clothing was made entirely by hand until the invention of the sewing machine (c. 1850). As soon as clothing could be mass produced cheaply, which was not until about 1875, it began to be fully standardized. Contained within this standardization were many differences that existed at the time, becoming institutionalized without anybody's being aware of it.

Interestingly, this point in the nineteenth century also represents the most extreme efflorescence of social theories which, taken as a whole, bolster and justify the grossest disparity between men and women. Women were scientifically demonstrated to be the inferior of men in every respect: morally, physically, emotionally and mentally. Men did not want to look like women, and, equally important, did not want women to look like men. Thus, even in so small a matter as buttons, there had to be a visible distinction.

This has continues well into our own time: Boys have consistently rejected styles associated with girls. The converse is not true, however, for girls. Girls have consistently added boyish styles to their wardrobe alternatives. When sailor suits became popular for girls, boys no longer wanted to wear them. When girls began wearing shorts in the 1930s-40s, many boys objected to wearing them. When knee socks became identified as "girls socks" in America, boys rejected them. Boys don't want to look like girls, because then boys will treat them like girls. Girls, however, are perfectly pleased to look like boys, because that's where the power is. They still, of course, want to look like girls -- when it suits them.

The next stage in the transition of the button was to regularized the opening side, and found its first skirmishes and decisive battles in women's trousers, beginning with wearing them--or anything like them--at all. As opposed to the button's almost silent victory in becoming a legitimate article of feminine attire, the feminine battle for bifurcated garments was hotly and bitterly contested. Amelia Bloomer's modest attempt to reform female dress "provoked an almost unbelievable outburst of excitement, ridicule and vituperation. What we may call the 'trouser complex' came into full play." (Laver, 181-182) Though her efforts of the 1850's were a failure, the potentially revealing crinoline skirt of the same period necessitated long linen pantaloons edged with lace and reaching to the ankle. Bloomers finally caught on with the cycling craze of the 1890's, and women factory workers during the years of the Great War were often costumed in baggy coveralls. The cross-dressing Marlena Dietrich created a vogue among American women for wearing slacks, which received a further boost during the war years when Rosie the Riveter put her hair up and traded her feminine skirts for the masculine pants and coveralls of war production. Though more feminized garments, such as pedal pushers or capris, zip either up the back or the side, any garment that started out as essentially masculine and had a front fly, even though tailored for the female form, retained the masculine style of opening in the center and from the right. Women's upper garments, however, still open the opposite from men's, and there's no reason to suppose that this will change in the foreseeable future. Though this would be the last bastion to storm, there may be no reason to storm it as the fortress has already fallen. (7)

The belt as a functional element of men's clothing appears in two separate functions at about the same time: First is in sports, notably baseball, and later in tennis. The Knickerbocker Rules for playing baseball date from September 23, 1845, and the players of the time wore loose shirts and belted long pants.

The military belt was not intended to hold up the soldier's trousers. It was worn around the waist, from which depended various items peculiar to the trade--canteen, bayonet, and so forth. Enlisted tended to wear a cross belt over the left shoulder, supporting the heavy ammunition pouch. Officers wore the cross belt over the right shoulder, supporting the sword, which was worn on the left. The British officer, Sir Samuel James Browne (1824-1901), developed the "Sam Browne" belt, a combination belt and cross strap, with the strap passing over the right shoulder, and the tongue of the belt pointing to the left. This style was worn by commissioned officers of the British Army and by members of various police forces.

Suspenders worked well enough when a waistcoat and dress coat covered the shoulders and torso, but the more informal styles of the 1920s revealed the man's waist. Visible suspenders made the man look undressed, so men began wearing belts to hold up their trousers. Following the military model, the belt, sans cross strap, buckled with the tongue facing left.

Women's use of the belt is more to emphasize the waist than to hold anything up. The direction of the tongue is variable: when the belt is wide and more like a girdle, the direction is often to the right. When women adopted the masculine pants, however, they followed the masculine model for wearing the belt, which is almost invariably to the left.

The gradual adoption of masculine fashion by women has two salient elements: first, it is a one-way street. Women adopt masculine styles, whereas men do not adopt feminine styles.

Second, the three great waves of fashion change follow three great waves of social change. First, the rise of mercantile capitalism in the High Middle Ages and Renaissance is accompanied by the adoption of tailoring for both men and women, though the feminine lower garment remains full and loose, whereas the masculine lower garment bifucates and indicates the actual figure.

The second wave, accompanying the great social and political revolutions of the late 18th century is the adoption by women--without any fanfare or fuss--of the button, and this follows the first great wave of feminine consciousness exemplified by such works as Mary Wolstoncraft's 1792 "Vindication of the Rights of Women," and Abigail Adams' famous letter to her husband. (8)

The third (and perhaps last) is the taking by storm of the trouser, a real battle that began in the 1850s and only just came to a conclusion (though in formal situations women who wear trousers are not yet met with glad cries and rejoicing). This last follows two episodic twentieth century battles, the first being Women's Suffrage, and the second that for reproductive rights.

A nineteenth century observer would be astonished and appalled by the apparent lack of distinction between a modern man's and woman's costume, and might not even recognize a group of highschool youths as consisted of both boys and girls. But it's easy for us: just look at the buttons.


(1) The title "Button, Button" is derived from a chant which accompanies a children's game, in which children sit in a circle and pass a hidden button from hand to hand and the person who is "it" carefully watches and at the end chants, "Button, button, who's got the button?" and tries to guess who had the button in her hand. If she guesses successfully, the person holding the button becomes "it" and the game resumes. [Return to place]

(2) By "button" I do not mean an ornamental boss, nor do I mean a button which goes through a loop of thread. I mean a button that fastens to a garment and holds it together by going through a button hole on the opposite flap, so that the garment opening overlaps and does not gape. [Return to place]

(3) Note the backward "S" which, though not typical of Schongauer's engravings is present in a few others, and is not an indication that the plate is presented backwards. [Return to place]

(4) The degree of strangeness of a woman dressed in man's clothing is something that we, as residents of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, can scarcely imagine. The number of women who did cross this boundary was so small and noteworthy, that each one of them has quite nearly a page of history to herself. The case of Hannah Snell (1723 - 1792), the "female soldier" will serve to illustrate: She was born in Worcester on the 23rd of April, 1723, the daughter of a hosier. In order to seek her husband, who had mistreated and abandoned her, in 1745 she donned man's attire and enlisted as a soldier in Guise's regiment of foot, but soon deserted, and shipped on board the sloop "Swallow" under her brother-in-law's name of James Gray. The "Swallow" sailed in Boscawen's fleet to the East Indies, and took part in the siege of Araapong. Hannah served in the assault on Pondicherry, and was wounded, but she succeeded in extracting the bullet without calling in a surgeon. When recovered, she served before the mast on the "Tarter" and the "Eltham," but when paid off she resumed woman's costume. Her adventures were published as "The Female Soldier, or the Surprising Adventures of Hannah Snell" (1750) and she afterwards gave public exhibitions wearing military uniform in London. She died insane in Bethlehem hospital on the 8th of February, 1702. (Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 11th Edition, 1910)
There is good reason to suppose that Joan of Arc was burned not because she was a witch or an enemy of the English, but because she refused to put off men's clothing and dress appropriately to her sex.
Noteworthy also are the histories of Catalina de Erauso (1580 (?) - 1650 (?)), the "Lieutenant Nun;" Mary Firth; Christian Davies, Maria Bochkareva; Angelique Brulon; Nadezhda Durova, the Napoleonic "Cavalry Maiden," and Deborah Sampson (1760 - 1827). [Return to place]

(5) See my article "Short Skirts," Communication Arts Magazine, January/February 2000 (pages 14-20)
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(6) They've taken of his buttons off an' cut his stripes away,
An' they're hangin' Danny Deever in the mornin'. -- Rudyard Kipling (1865 - 1936), "Danny Deever" (1892 - 1893) [Return to place]

(7) When a pattern of behavior becomes institutionalized, change is difficult to impose. The QWERTY typewriter keyboard is an example of an institutionalized pattern that will probably never change. The convention of buttons on men's and women's clothing will change only if women make their clothes conform in that particular to men's, and since there is no compelling reason for that to happen, it likely will not.
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(8) . . . in the new code of laws which, I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention are not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound to obey the laws in which we have no voice of representation. - Abigail Adams, excerpt from a letter to her husband, Samuel Adams, March 1776 [Return to place]


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