Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Shirt Buttons - One More Unnecessary Way of Separating Men And Women

I have a wife and a daughter (and a mother who didn't retire until she was 85) so I'm aware of women's issues.  If I don't notice, they make sure I do.  But even so when I was with my granddaughter at a playground two days in a row - once when she wore pants and a t shirt and the next day in more girly clothes - I posted about how even as babies they are already clearly divided into girls and boys.  And then there was the birthday party at that playground where four year old girls were lined up to beat a woman with sticks.  If any of the parents noticed what was going on, they didn't say anything. 

This isn't so dramatic, but it's one more example of unnecessarily dividing males from females that I noticed when I was getting clothes off the line at my mom's when we were there last.  Buttons!

I decided to take pictures of my mom's and my shirts in case I decided to do a post.

Where does this come from?

There are a number of posts online that all say pretty much the same thing - that it comes from [differing times in the past] when upper middle class women had servants to help them dress and since they buttoned them from the other side, they moved buttons for women over.   Others say men needed access to their weapons and women holding babies on their right arms needed access to their breasts.  Some examples: 

I was surprised at how many posts there were on this, how much they copied from each other yet transformed the facts,  and how few cited any sources.  I can't believe that people believe this stuff without any historical references. (And some did note that the evidence is sketchy.)  I would note that Queen Victoria was on the throne from 1837 to 1901 (from the term of the 8th US president Martin Van Buren to that of the 25th, William McKinley. So she coincides with the 19th century. But the medieval period ended well before 1635. 

Historical Boys' Clothing has one of the better documented discussions of this and ultimately questions these explanations:
"The historical explanations about the rationale for 'gendered buttons' has me wondering whether the 'rational' explanations that are given in fashion histories (like the one quoted from The Economy of Fashion) are post-hoc explanations, since there are no further sources given. I'm thinking of Norbert Elias' intriguing point about post-hoc explanations of manners that have little to do with the actual origins of a particular behavior."

 I can't tell you where it comes from, but I can hypothesize about why it's still around. Warning:  This strays into pure supposition..  I'm not citing any sources other than my own brain. 


While women may wear men's clothing, men in our society have been conditioned strongly NOT to wear women's clothing.  I suspect this has to do with the power differential between the genders - it makes sense for women to take on the clothes of those in power (men), but it doesn't make sense (to those who set the standards) for men to take on the clothes of those who are less powerful.  The standard setters think power is the most important possession.  

But as women gain more power in society, we get men doing things traditionally in the domain of women - shaving parts of their bodies beyond their faces, using make-up, spending more time on their hair, even coloring it, and wearing more uni-sexual clothing.

But as soon as you put on a woman's shirt or jacket, as soon as you start to zip or button it, you know - whoops, this is for a woman.

I suspect that much of the rabidly anti-women's autonomy wing of the Republican party comes from the growing power and independence of women in the United States.  If you think they went crazy when a black man became president, wait until a woman takes office.


There are people who benefit from this - mainly people who sell clothing. 

But the fewer gender barriers we have the more freedom people have to be who they are.  Girls and boys shouldn't be pressured into specific gender roles.  We should be allowed to express ourselves in whatever way feels right to us including clothing. 

I'd note that while googling for this post, the most interesting history on shirts came from a website called Reconstructing History, where you can get a pattern for "18thc Men's Shirts and Drawers." ($26.95 for non-members)  There's a long and very serious description of men's shirts based on historical documents that begins:
"Hot on the heels of the flowing garments of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance ushered in the Golden Age of the tailor's art. Clothing took on impossible shapes and radical forms, all controlled by the skill of these manipulators of fabric. Doublets were padded. Bodices were boned. The human form was hidden by what can most accurately be termed "textile architecture." Western Europeans were sailing around the world and discovering unknown lands. Certainly such beings weren't going to be restricted to traditional clothing shapes. So the clothes got more and more structured as the Age of Discovery went on.
But one element of dress harked back to its medieval antecedents: the shirt. Under the slashes and bones, the pinking and brocading, the shirt was still a very simple garment. Whether embroidered with blackwork or pleated and smocked, the shirt retained a simple elegance and basic shape which changed little between the 16th and 19th centuries."

It mentions buttons four times:
  • Two handmade thread buttons on the collar and one on each cuff seems to be a common amount throughout the period.
  • In 1731, we receive more information:  “Shirts of Blue and White Checkered linen, to be made at least 40 in. long, and not less than 26 in. broad. The sleeves 20 in. long and 8 in. broad, with 4 buttons substantially sewed. -- 3s 6d.”  And in the final contract we have, 1739-40, it calls for “Shirts of Blue and White Chequered linen, the sleeve 20 inches long and 8 in. broad, with 4 buttons.  40 long, 26 broad at the waist -- 3s 6d.”
  • The knees are closed with linen tapes.  The waistband is closed at front with two covered buttons, but the fly is left open, confimring that these are indeed drawers and not meant for wear as breeches.

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