historic sewing

Fact and Mostly Fiction about Buttons

For centuries, garments remained loose enough to be wrapped around one's body or slipped on over one's head. Then, early in the 14th century, clothing with narrow waists and sleeves turned this into something of an impractical ordeal. As a result, buttons, a fairly new invention at the time, grew in popularity.

Why Is There A Button Sewn There?  'Button Use' Folklore

As the 1500s gave way to succeeding centuries, buttons gradually gradually began to lose some of their utilitarian functions. The buttons didn't disappear, however. They became fashion statements. Some buttons that once served a recognized purpose on outer garments no longer did. And no-one remembered what that original function was. This led to a body of folklore designed to explain why useless buttons were once useful.

In one story, the king of France, supposedly disgusted at some uncouth noblemen who habitually wiped their runny noses on their jacket sleeves, issued a dictate requiring a row of buttons on each sleeve, which, the legend goes, halted the offending practice. Story tellers offered no explanation as to why the buttons didn't appear on the top of those noble sleeves where they might have had more impact on those corresponding noble noses.

Another explanation claimed nobles, dandies, and assorted swashbucklers, slaves to the styles of their day, favored fancy shirts with long, frilly sleeves that extended beyond the length of their shorter-sleeved coats. Buttons secured to the sleeve of such outer garments allowed men to fold back and secure their lacy sleeves to their jackets in the event they engaged in a little swordplay.

Until modern times, a large button was traditionally placed just above the long slit in the back of men's jackets. One mundane explanation says quite simply that the button anchored the top of the slit, which kept it from tearing upward. A more colorful account holds that the button allowed the jacket wearer, whether left or right handed, to fold up and hold a back panel of his jacket so he could quickly reach his belt weapons in times of peril. Equally colorful, if less appealing, was the claim that the oversized button held both panels so men could attend to their toilet routines.

ABOVE RIGHT: Antique button creation by Allyson Flag-Miller for her 'And Old Buttons' shop in Salem, OR. This one depicts Aesop's "Sour Grapes" fable.

As that particular oversized button lost favor on the fashion scene, and as men's jackets shortened considerably from the days they reached almost to the floor, some curious folks began to wonder why that silly slit ever made an appearance to start with. Storytellers had the explanation. Nobles, they pointed out, wore a swords. They rested one hand on the hilt of their weapons when standing about. This downward pressure caused the tip of their swords to raise in the back. The slit allowed for this event by keeping the backs of their jackets from lifting. It also permitted men to sit down without removing their coats.

The U.S. Navy takes a significantly different view of the same story. Their position is quoted in its entirety:

"The decorative bone buttons that are today sewn on many suit jackets, sports coats and blazers began as an effort by Lord [Horatio] Nelson [1758-1895] to keep young midshipmen and cabinboys from wiping their noses on their sleeves. In the days of sail, young boys, often as young as nine years old, would sign on sailing ships as cabinboys, usually becoming midshipmen as they got older. Many, particularly on their first voyages, would become homesick, tearfully tending to their duties in their fancy gentlemen's uniform. That uniform had no pockets for a handkerchief, so the young boys would, like all young boys, wipe their noses on their sleeves." To break his cabinboys and midshipmen of this ungentlemanly habit, Lord Nelson had large brass buttons sewn on the sleeves of all midshipmen and cabinboy uniforms. The decorative value of the buttons were soon realized, and in short order, London tailors were adding decorative buttons to frocks, coats, and dinner jackets. Though the buttons have become less gaudy, the practice continues."

And a kingly account it is.

Why is the bottom button on men's vests left unused? 

According to British tailors, a member of English royalty appeared at a public function one bright afternoon with his bottom button mistakenly undone. The middle class glommed onto this faux pas, establishing it as a fashion statement that even the royals quickly adopted.

Why are men's shirt buttons are on the right & women's buttons on the left? 

And finally . . . men's shirt buttons are on the right side because most men are right-handed. Women's buttons, the story goes, are on the left side so their right-handed maids could more easily tend to them.