Why Are Women Always Right?
Right-over-left, that is. In the Western world, women's garments traditionally close right-over-left, while men's close left-over-right. As an example, the Moss Brothers jacket I showed you on Monday is a women's jacket because of the right-over-left closure (as well as the princess seams giving room for the bosom, and the flared hips with slanting pockets for style). That's why I was surprised to find no womenswear on their company website!
I've heard different stories explaining the difference between men's and women's closures, but I don't believe any of them.
For instance, I've been told that it's because historically women had ladies' maids to dress them, and the right-over-left configuration on the body is a left-over-right configuration for the maid, which was supposedly easier. Men's garments, by this logic, close left-over-right because men dressed themselves. I see several problems with this explanation... For one thing, not all women had maids or even sisters or friends to help them dress, and if they did, surely the maids would've been making their own clothes the opposite of their mistresses' clothes since the maids wouldn't have had maids. For another thing, wealthy men often had valets to dress them, but their clothes remained the same. Finally, who says left-over-right is easier? Men learn to dress themselves one way and women the opposite way, and neither has trouble, so surely it's just an arbitrary thing that you learn. If you don't believe me, consider the fact that all women's pants close right-over-left except jeans, which close left-over-right because they were originally menswear. Now, had you ever noticed that? If you're a woman, do you ever go to put on a pair of jeans and get confused because the fly is opposite of the fly on your nice slacks? I think not! You never noticed because it's just as easy either way. Buttoned shirts are a little more tricky, but they too would be easy with practice.
Another explanation I heard was that as menswear and womenswear started to be more similar, people worried about accidental crossdresssing, since the Bible and society both prohibited the wearing of the opposite sex's garments. (It's still considered embarrassing, as this episode of The Office shows.) So if both men and women could wear trousers or buttoned shirts, there needed to be some distinction between men's and women's clothes! I find this argument rather thin... there are plenty of obvious differences between men's clothes and women's clothes besides the closures! The waist-to-hip shaping, for instance! In that episode of The Office, Michael's suit is a woman's suit because the coat has room for a bosom and is lined in bright pink satin! Plus the slacks have no pockets (Curse you, womenswear clothing designers! Why do you hate pockets so much?!) and have a thin elastic waistband.
The least believable explanation is that men's jackets close left over right because Napoleon liked to rest his right hand in his waistcoat. In fact, the "hand in waistcoat" pose was not original to Napoleon, but was a common affectation in portraiture, meant to show that the sitter was manly but modest; it was thought to be a sign of breeding. And while the majority of sitters put their right hands in their waistcoats, there were exceptions: The 1st Marquis of Pombal, in the mid-to-late 1700's, was painted with his left hand in his waistcoat, as was George Washington in the 1770's. Look closely at their portraits, though, and you can see that their waistcoats still close left over right; they simply push the overlap down in order to get under the underlap and into the waistcoat! In other words: regardless of which hand a man preferred to tuck away, his waistcoat always closed left over right.
Some people on Quora claim that since most men are right handed, and thus wore their swords on their left hips, the left-over-right closure made it so they can draw their swords without accidentally catching the overlap and getting their hilt stuck in their clothing, or tearing their clothing. This makes sense for men, but doesn't explain why women's are opposite. (As a non-Western comparison, in Japan, kimono always close left over right, for women and for men. This page about which way to orient the samurai sword [it had to do with ergonomics and the whole outfit] also shows how the left over right wrap would keep the sword hilt from catching in the garment. The only time kimono are wrapped right over left is when dressing the dead for burial, which would be right over left for the corpse, but the more familiar left over right for the live person doing the dressing.)
Back to western culture, the Smithsonian Magazine, which ought to aspire to better research, gives an interesting (and possibly plausible) tidbit about men's armor closing left over right to protect the heart (on the left side of the chest) from a lance or sword point... then descends into silly speculation. I attach a quote, with my reactions in ALL-CAPS in brackets:
Because male soldiers also often drew their weapons with their right hand, building their clothes with the buttons on the right side would have made it a lot easier to adjust and unbutton with their free left hand, Garber writes. [BUT WHY WOULD THEY BE BUTTONING THEIR CLOTHES WHILE FIGHTING?] But these are far from the only theories that seek to answer this question. Others include the fact that many women breastfeed while holding their baby in their left arm [THIS IS NOT A "FACT". WOMEN SWITCH BACK AND FORTH DEPENDING ON WHICH BREAST IS FULL OF MILK], or that Napoleon mass-produced clothing that was intentionally difficult for women to put on. [CLOTHING WAS NOT MASS PRODUCED IN NAPOLEON'S DAY, FOR WOMEN OR FOR MEN. AND NAPOLEON WOULD HARDLY HAVE BEEN A BRILLIANT LEADER IF HE ENGAGED IN THAT KIND OF PETTY MICRO-MANAGEMENT!] Historians may never know exactly how women’s buttons ended up on the left, but regardless of its origin this design quirk is now just another sartorial custom.
Yes, the title of that article does say "Here's why" and then conclude that no-one knows why. Eye-roll.
I suspect that the real explanation has more to do with the makers of women's clothes and the makers of men's clothes being different people, in different guilds, or trained by different methods. Maybe tailors and dressmakers didn't talk to each other much. It's also worth noting that men's left-over-right closures seem to have standardized as early as the 1500's, at which point women's clothing was still being laced and pinned together. Women didn't use functional buttons until later.
Nowadays, the standard is right-over-left for women and left-over-right for men. If you're making clothes, just remember the phrase "women are always right on top"--which, though nonsensical, will help you remember to put the right side on top for womenswear. If the right side is on top, then the right side gets the buttonholes and the left side gets the buttons.
Now, a zipper is a equilateral closure, so if it's centered on a seam, there's no overlap to it. But it's often sewn with a lap to cover the teeth, and then the lap is right-over-left for women and left-over-right for men. On a skirt with a side zipper, the zipper goes in the left side, so if you sewed it with the right-over-left lap, it would lap toward the back and preserve the appearance of the front of the skirt. The exception for zippers is on women's jeans, which have a left-over-right overlap because jeans used to be menswear only, and when women started wearing them it was a subversive statement. Nowadays, womens' jeans are distinctively feminine in their proportions, but still close the "manly" way.
I don't know if there's a standard for hooks and eyes... when I sew them on, I follow the example of my bra and put the hook on the side I'll manipulate with my right hand, and the eye on the other side.
Of course, if you're making your own clothes, you can do it however you please! RTW standards and clothing conventions are just that, standards and conventions. They're not carved in stone, by Napoleon or anyone else!
1/19/2018 08:48:56 am
*snicker* This made me snicker. And I'm excited that you included the scene where Michael accidentally cross-dresses. That is all.
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Quilting, dressmaking, and history plied with the needle...
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