One of the surest ways to tell a man's shirt from a woman's shirt is to check which side it buttons on. Men's shirts button left over right and women's shirts button right over left. Buttons serve a functional and aesthetic purpose. They can add flare to a dress shirt or add an air of professionalism. Buttons also prevent the wearer from having to pull the shirt over his head each time he wants to wear it or take it off.
There are many theories as to the origins of shirts and other upper body clothing. Some theories involve religious beliefs such as Adam and Eve and the knowledge of their own sexuality and nudity. Other views involve more functional ideas such as protection from snow, wind, rain, insects, cold and heat. Button sides also have a mysterious origin.
One theory as to why buttons are on opposite sides is that back in the 19th century, many wealthy women had handmaids who helped them get dressed. By placing the buttons on the left side of the woman's garment, the buttons would be easier to manipulate by a servant, as long as she was right-handed. Since left-handed buttons were placed on wealthy women's attire, many women who wanted to appear fashionable would also want buttons on the left side. Wealthy men normally dressed themselves and would be comfortable buttoning their own shirt from right to left.
Another theory as to why men's and women's clothing buttons on opposite sides is that a man needed to be able to draw his weapon unhindered. "Men's buttoned clothing, originating in a sword-carrying society, opened in such a way that when the right hand reached over to the left side of the body, the sword would not snag on an opening in the garment as it was drawn" explains writer David Lance Goines.
Orthodox Jews do not adhere to the traditional principal of men and women's buttoning. Both sexes button their shirts right over left. Dr. Yitzchok Block explains that "Our garments are traditionally buttoned right over left because we bear no weapons.... The Kabbalah says that the right side of a person should always take precedence over the left, for the right side of man signifies kindness while the left signifies sternness, justice and retribution." This unique difference explains the importance of what appears to be a very small difference.
Even though times have changed and most of us don't have chamber maids or swords on our hips, the tradition of men and women buttoning on opposite sides remains. This tradition dates back to the inception of clothing. It is also important to note the assumption that the wearer of any particular shirt will be right-handed. The position of buttons is now largely irrelevant, except in cases of tradition and religion.
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