Dear Dr. Plume,
Why do men's & women's shirts, coats, etc. button on opposite sides? For example my shirts have the buttons on the right side & the holes on the left. My wife's shirts however are opposite. It seems to be the same with the zippers on coats also. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WHY?!?!?!?!!!??!!!!!!
-Morris in Omaha, NE
I sense a great deal of frustration from you about this topic. There is only one circumstance that could have resulted in this type of anger and I most certainly empathize with you.
Once, I received an invitation to speak on a panel at Columbia University. Naturally, not wanting to look a fool in front of a stylish New York crowd, I picked up a new button down shirt to wear for the occasion. Midway through my introduction, a young city punk shouted something to the effect of, “You're wearing a woman's shirt!”
I leaned towards a fellow panelist who explained that because the buttons were on opposite side of the shirt, I was technically wearing a women's blouse. Imagine my embarrassment. To this day, that was the last time I shopped at the store Forever 21, an establishment I was initially drawn to by my enthusiasm for blackjack.
Ultimately, to my relief, this faux pas was overlooked by the mob, who instead seemed to direct far more shouting at my actual lecture, which was titled: “Elderly People Do Not Belong in the Workplace.”
On to your question. Finally my degree from West Virginia University comes in handy. While a student there, I was put under great pressure by my advisor to pursue, against my better judgment, a B.S. In Textile Management and Application Theory. For nearly 30 years, I have wondered when his knowledge would be put to use beyond pestering clothing retailers in the mall. (In addition to multiple distinguished degrees and certificates, I can add to my list of distinctions a security escort out of two Banana Republics and one Hollister after tirades about the “chino.”)
The button was invented in Spain in the 1200s and the button down shirt was a project commissioned by the ruler of Spain, who realized that the button could be used to keep shirts better closed than what most people were using at the time (string, staples, glue).
Two clothing designers rose to the occasion, Bendito Benitez and Fernando Venezuela (no relation to the country).
When presented with the men's prototypes to add to the ruler's royal wardrobe, the ruler of Spain asked why Fernando had put the buttons on the opposite side. The quick thinking Fernando, trying to earn brownie points, said: “I put the buttons on the right side because this how a man's shirt is supposed to be.”
Unfortunately, this seemingly clever ploy backfired on him, when her majesty, the Queen of Spain, took this to mean that Fernando thought she looked like a man. (The queen had been sensitive about this since her youth due to a severe unibrow).
Fernando was hung and men's shirts continued to have buttons on the right for centuries. And that's for the love of god why.
Very Truly Yours Me,
Dr. Douglas H. Plume*
Monday, March 26, 2007
Dear Dr. Plume,
**Expert meaning: having earned an advanced degree in, taken a course on, read a book about, or watched a brief television segment concerning said subjects.