The lowly button has been around for centuries. In modern clothing and fashion design, a button is a small fastener, now most commonly made of plastic. They are found on most all types of clothing from dresses, shirts, blue jeans, and even suits.
Buttons made of seashell have been found that date back to around 2000 BC. Some buttons, used more as an ornament than as a fastening device, have been found which dated back about 5,000 years.
If one does just a little research into the history of buttons, a couple of questions will quickly come to mind. The first question is - 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, you have invariably noticed that men’s shirts have their buttons on the right side of the garment. However, women’s shirts have their buttons on the left side. Why is this?
Although there is no historical record or museum with an exhibit devoted to buttons and their history, most experts seem to cite the same simple rationale that dates back many centuries. Their explanation is simply that men’s buttons are on the right side because men have always tended to dress themselves, and most men are right handed. Thus it is far easier for the right handed man to button his own shirt.
Women’s buttons are on the left side because, dating back to the Victorian era, the women who could afford fancy clothing with a bunch of buttons would rely on maids to help dress them. So, if a servant (most of who would be right handed) is going to routinely button up a shirt/dress on 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.
The second question which comes to mind is - why do men’s suit coats have buttons on the sleeves? If you will note any of your suit coats, you will see a row of usually four buttons that seem to have no practical function. Why are they there?
Back in the early days most men wore coats while in public, some even working in them. Most of these buttons were actually functional which means a man could roll up his coat sleeve to protect the garment while doing a chore. Some were called “surgeon’s sleeves” because a doctor would need to roll up his coat sleeves to protect it from damage. These were functional buttons. However, this is no longer the case. The reason for that row of buttons still used on coats can be blamed on Frederick the Great.
Frederick the Great, ruler of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, used to enjoy nothing more than the sight of his troops neatly decked out in uniform and lined up in perfect rows. Only one thing spoiled the scene; the soldiers insisted on sweating, getting dirty, catching diseases, and bleeding profusely.
Since no one had the foresight to provide the troops with Kleenex with which to mop their brows, the soldiers made do as best they could with their coat sleeves. After a hard day’s skirmishing, said sleeves would be covered with unsightly blots and blemishes, and perhaps a vital organ or two.
Naturally, this was unacceptable to Frederick. He pondered long and hard on what to do. Finally, the solution dawned – sew metal buttons on the top sides of the sleeves, and soldiers would scratch their faces open every time they tried to use their coat sleeves for a handkerchief. Thus was the snappy appearance of Frederick’s army preserved.
As the army uniforms metamorphosed into civilian dress, the sleeve buttons gradually migrated to the lower side. Presumably by this time manners among the masses had improved enough that the threat of physical pain was no longer needed to encourage public decency. Now the buttons stay there for the same reason men still wear ties: it’s always been done that way, they look vaguely natty, and most men are so baffled by matters sartorial that it never dawns on them to agitate for a change.
Now, if anyone ever asks you a question about buttons you will know the answer.
“BUTTON IT UP”
BY: NEAL MURPHY
107 HEMLOCK STREET
P.O. BOX 511
SAN AUGUSTINE, TX 75972
Web Site: www.etexasbook.com