As with so many things in history, we can’t know with 100% accuracy why men’s and women’s clothes button up the opposite way. (Even something relatively recent like who invented Buffalo Wings is up for debate despite being invented only about a half century ago.) But there are several theories floating around on the button front, one of which is particularly plausible.
The most widely touted theory by far is that the practise of reversing buttons on men’s and women’s clothing stems back to the time of elaborate dress of gentlemen and ladies when upper-class women, particularly during the Victorian era, wore so many layers that it was necessary for them to be dressed by a servant or maid. As such, it became customary to make clothes for women that were slightly easier for other people to button up, specifically right handed people. Men’s clothes were left with the button on the right, as has been common throughout the history of buttoning, because most men tended to dress themselves.
As reasonable as that explanation sounds, it’s not without its flaws. For instance, there is the implication that a significant amount of women had maids, which just wasn’t the case. Of course, the counter-argument to this point is that these select few members of the upper-class were the trend-setters for right over left buttons and that even if women didn’t have a maid or servant, they’d still want similar dresses and clothing just to be en vogue.
However, this theory does tend to ignore one rather important fact- elite males used to have help getting dressed all the time and generally had a heck of a lot more buttons on their garments, particularly before the 19th century when buttons on women’s dresses were rare.
Sure the men of this era didn’t usually need to be physically reined into their petticoats like women in their clothes, but to suggest that men, especially upper-class men, didn’t have servants who helped them button up their coats and waistcoats just isn’t accurate. So why would this sort of courtesy be given to the maids, who had relatively few buttons to do up, but not the manservants, who had many?
Further, why would any self-respecting upper-class person go out of their way to make their servants’ lives any easier? Also, why would they suddenly start doing this sometime around the early to mid-19th century and not before? Up through the 18th century there are numerous examples of women’s clothing that included buttons having the buttons on the right, the same as men’s clothing. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, this started to change, and by the second half of the 19th century, the left-button for women’s clothing was nearly universal.
Another popular theory sometimes proposed is that women’s clothes were designed so that the women had to button themselves with the “inferior” left hand as an indicator of their status as not on the same level as men. (Throughout history lefties have generally gotten a bad rap.)
It’s theorised that when the mass production of clothing became possible with the advent of the sewing machine, a conscious decision was made to make a clear distinction between male and female clothing with how they buttoned, and make sure women didn’t forget “their place.”
Beyond lack of any evidence that this was a motivating factor, this theory also has a lot of more obvious problems. For starters, it fails to take into account that many dressmakers from that era were female, as were many of the artisans and designers. Also, the vast majority of women from that period were able to sew and often made their own clothes; so it doesn’t make sense that they’d institute a trend to remind themselves of their supposed inferiority. It’s instead more likely that dressmakers were inspired by the trend-setters, who certainly weren’t about to associate themselves with inferiority.
So this once again brings us back to those trend-setters and why they did it. Another theory (our personal favorite) that is similar to the first mentioned above, is that it did have to do with servants, but had nothing to do with making the servants’ lives easier. Having clothes with buttons on the other side was a social indicator that you were so offensively wealthy that you didn’t even need to dress yourself.
Given that many other fashion choices from this era were definitely made for this reason, it seems somewhat reasonable that switching the button side could have been another throw-in, along with the progressively more elaborate garb requiring women to stand around for significant amounts of time as their maids dressed them and prepared their bodies for the day. It dually demonstrated that you not only had the money to afford the getup and the servants, but you also had nothing better to do.
As Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 work “Theory of the Leisure Class” proposed, the purpose of the 19th century woman among the elite was simply to demonstrate how wealthy a family was. Thus, there was no better way to do this than to expensively and elaborately dress up the women, and then make sure it was abundantly clear that those same women had nothing at all to do all the time as everything was already handled by servants.
Whatever the case, it’s theorised that this trend caught on with the masses trying to emulate the fashion of the elite, similar to how high heels caught on among the masses (and women) after they were popularly worn by elite males. When the masses started wearing high heels, the elite simply made them taller (which was more expensive). However, once the ladies started wearing them, the trend of men wearing high heels (distinct from riding boots) died off. Similar reasoning might be why the whole switching the button-side trend did not catch on among men. It was enough to show that your women didn’t need to button their own clothes. No sense then mimicking female fashion.
Given historical examples around the 1840s-1850s, it would seem at this point it was about a 50/50 chance whether a woman’s clothes’ buttons would be on the right or left. By the 1860s, the right over left was near universal. This can (probably) be attributed to the popularization of the sewing machine around the same time. Clothes became cheaper to buy and those selling them seemed to have chosen to emulate the elite on this one, and the practice has stuck around ever since.