Men’s Shirts Button on the Right. Why Do Women’s Button on the Left?

Nobody knows for sure, but plausible theories include swords, servants and saddles

Pink women's sweater
These gendered designs have been the standard for hundreds of years. Kampee Patisena via Getty Images

Without looking, can you say whether your shirts button to the left or to the right? The answer is actually pretty simple: If you wear women’s clothing, the buttons are on the left side of the shirt. However, if you wear men’s shirts, the buttons line up on the right.

“This is not a big thing, but it is a weird thing,” wrote the Atlantic’s Megan Garber in 2015. “The Button Differential is a relic of an old tradition that we have ported, rather unthinkingly, into the contemporary world.”

Like many old customs, no one’s really sure how the button-side switcheroo came to dominate fashion. Such a design choice would have made sense if, say, all women were left-handed and all men were right-handed. But because about 90 percent of people are right-handed, that’s clearly not the reason. So, what gives?

According to one popular theory, it might have to do with how middle- and upper-class European women used to dress. During the Renaissance and the Victorian Era, women’s clothing was often much more complicated and elaborate than men’s—think petticoats, corsets and bustles—and therefore more difficult for the wearer to secure themselves.

“Women—particularly wealthy women—wore elaborate items and often enjoyed the luxury of being dressed by a servant,” as Mental Floss’ Caitlin Schneider wrote in 2015. To make it easier for servants (right-handed ones, that is) to button up their employers’ dresses, clothiers might have started sewing buttons on the opposite side. Men’s shirts, meanwhile, were designed for wearers to button on their own. Eventually, as mass-produced clothing became more and more common, the design became standard.

“Why has this tradition carried into the modern era, when women can dress themselves, thank you very much?” wrote Benjamin Radford for Live Science in 2010. “There’s no real reason the buttons couldn’t be switched. It’s just that nobody has bothered to change a tradition that few people notice or complain about in the first place.”

While this explanation is among the most common, many other theories have been proposed. For instance: When women rode horses, they typically rode sidesaddle, with the right sides of their bodies facing front. Perhaps, some have argued, tops with buttons on the left would protect riders from the breeze coming through their clothing.
Illustration of woman riding sidesaddle
When women rode sidesaddle, the right sides of their bodies were facing forward. Duncan1890 via Getty Images

Others insist that women’s clothes were designed for mothers, who were more likely to hold their babies with their left hand, leaving their right hand free; as such, having their shirt’s open flap on the right would be most convenient for breastfeeding. Some have even suggested that the design choice was an intentional statement, meant to emphasize that men were different from—and superior to—women.

Meanwhile, other theories address the opposite side of this conundrum: Why would men’s clothes always button on the right? That particular tradition might have been “a holdover from warfare,” per the Atlantic. Just as wealthy women once needed servants to help them get dressed, men once required clothing that helped them perform in battle.

According to the authors of The Art of Chivalry: European Arms and Armor from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

To [ensure] that an enemy’s lance point would not slip between the plates [of armor], they overlapped from left to right, since it was standard fighting practice that the left side, protected by the shield, was turned toward the enemy. Thus, men’s jackets button left to right even to the present day.

Painting of Napoleon
Jacques-Louis David's 1812 portrait depicts Napoleon with his hand in his waistcoat.  Vernon Lewis Gallery / Stocktrek Images via Getty Images

Additionally, because of the way that male soldiers drew their weapons, wearing clothes with buttons on the right would allow them to perform this motion efficiently. Paul Keers, author of A Gentleman’s Wardrobe, told the Guardian in 2011:

A gentleman’s sword was always worn on the left side, so that it could be drawn with the right hand. If a jacket buttoned right over left, the handle of the sword would be likely to catch in the jacket opening when drawn, so any serious swordsman would demand a tunic which buttoned left over right. As an indication of a masculine lifestyle, this tradition was then extended to other items of menswear.

These are far from the only theories that seek to answer this question, though others are slightly more far-fetched. According to one theory, the discrepancy is all because of Napoleon, who had a habit of posing for portraits with his hand in his waistcoat.

“Women, apparently, used to mock the emperor by mimicking that pose,” wrote the Atlantic. As the story goes, “Napoleon ordered women’s shirts be buttoned on the opposite side of men’s to end all the fun-making at his expense.”

Historians may never know exactly how women’s buttons ended up on the left—but regardless of its origin, this design quirk is now just another sartorial custom.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.