As I was drafting a recent pattern (the shirt dress pattern which is about to be put through its paces by my wonderful team of testers), I found myself hesitating over which way the buttons should go – EVERY TIME I sewed a new sample.

I have obviously been buttoning myself up successfully for *cough* many years, but still, I can never remember which way they go when it comes to putting in button holes.  And Googling isn’t always immediately helpful – “ladies clothing has buttons on the left side” it tells me – great, but what does that mean? Whose left?  The wearers’ left or the viewers’ left?

So I get confused.  And I have to do an image search or inspect the buttoned garments in my wardrobe.

"Left is the hand that is Left when I Write"

“Left is the hand that is Left when I Write”

The thing is, whenever I put on men’s clothing (I used to buy army surplus trousers and jackets in my grungy youth)  it’s immediately obvious that they button the wrong way.  So you might think that I should know instinctively on which side I should put the buttons.  But I don’t.

Left-Right Confusion

This problem I have might be connected to my hesitation over ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ generally.  I always have to quickly check the backs of my hands for the ‘L’ shape formed by the thumb and forefinger of my left hand, or silently recite “Left is the hand that is left when I write” when given directional instructions.

I’m not alone on this by the way – “left-right confusion”is a proper, real phenomenon which affects between 15% – 20% of the population .  You can take a test to see how confused you are.  I’m apparently quite confused.  It’s more likely to affect women and left handers, but I don’t think anyone’s worked out why yet.  (I’m right handed, in case you were wondering – which is why that little mnemonic above works for me.)  I believe that left-right confusion is an indicator of some wonderful character traits that just haven’t yet been associated with it yet, perhaps something like creativity, kindness or the ability to poach a decent egg.

The Buttoning Protocol

So – all of this is very nice, but which way do they actually go, then?  Having checked Google Images again, I can confirm that girls clothes button right-over-left (the wearers’ right over her left), and boys clothes left-over-right (the wearer’s left over his right.)  Below are some helpful diagrams.

A History Lesson

The reason behind this is a little bit woolly, a lot of assumptions seem to have been made with no real, proper, conclusive evidence to pin down the reason.  The consensus is that it stems from Victorians showing off.  The ladies liked to show how wealthy they were by proving that they had so much money at their disposal that they could afford a maid to dress them, so the buttons were positioned to make it easier for the dresser to dress them.  Not that they especially cared about making things easier for their servants, it was just a sneaky little way of boasting.  Men kept their buttons on the “I’m a big boy, I can do it myself” side, not necessarily because they did button themselves, but because they didn’t want in on this new girly fashion, thank you very much.  It was enough for them to show that their ladies didn’t have to ruin their manicures on those pesky little buttons.

As this became fashion in the upper classes (probably starting with the proper posh folk in the Royal Court, or something – but don’t quote me on that), the middle classes copied them and eventually we all took this convention as standard.

So there you have it, now you know which way to button your home made garments, and also why we button them the way that we do. And also how to tell your left from your right, just in case you needed to know but were embarrassed to ask.

But I bet you’ll still have to Google it or check your blouse next time you’re sewing.