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The Non-Expert

Buttons

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we settle the question of why men’s and women’s buttons are on different sides of the split. And history takes a back seat.

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.

 

Question: Why are men’s and women’s shirts buttoned differently (the buttons on different sides of the split)?

Answer: The button was invented thousands of years ago in Asia. Maybe. The truth is that neither historians nor button collectors have even the foggiest idea where or when the button was invented so the reference books have assigned it a provenance that’s impossible to disprove. Paper, gunpowder, the yo-yo: Any time we don’t know the exact origin of something it gets logged in the Encyclopedia Britannica as having been invented “thousands of years ago in Asia.”

Here’s something we do know about buttons, however: During the Renaissance they became more and more exquisite. On the clothes of the aristocracy, buttons were frequently made from precious jewels and the elaborate nature of your buttons was an indication of your social status. This is why the Amish consider buttons an ostentatious display of wealth and power, and also why this is the most feared man in Lancaster, Pa.

Around the same time, women from the finest European families stopped dressing themselves. To understand why, we have to look deeper into the nature of the aristocrat-servant relationship with the aid of a barely tangential personal anecdote.

Summers throughout college I worked as a houseboy for an elderly, wealthy man. He lived alone on a hilltop estate and at various times his staff consisted of: upstairs maid; downstairs maid; cook; butler; laundress; me; and two groundskeepers. Many of these people were full-time, meaning they worked and lived at the house all-year-round, even when the boss was at one of his three other homes. The laundress and I were seasonal. The one thing we all had in common was that none of us had a damn thing to do.

You see, in general, wealthy people don’t make a very big mess. Most of them don’t even do all that much, which is just as well. When rich people make plans, it’s usually to do something the rest of us agree is really stupid, like circling the Earth in a hot-air balloon or driving to the Hamptons on a Friday afternoon or getting married to Jennifer Lopez. My boss wanted none of that. He went to his office for a few hours in the morning. He played golf. He napped. Sometimes he had a cocktail after dinner. He didn’t need eight people as facilitators, but he was used to having servants around and he was also a good-hearted fellow who enjoyed employing people and so there we were, all of us, including him, sitting around the house doing nothing.

I’m sure it was the same in the Renaissance. At some point, one of these powdered-wig types in France suggested to his wife’s maidservant that she should start earning her keep and said to her “Shirley, when Marie gets up tomorrow morning, I want you to put her clothes on her.” Shirley and the other domestics snickered amongst themselves that the laziness of the bourgeoisie would one day lead to their downfall, but she didn’t really mind because—as far as 16th-century labor goes—putting clothes on an inert rich lady is about as cushy as it gets. Anyway, word got around and dressing your mistress became all the rage and next thing you know if you were still lacing up your own bodice then you might be French for “redneck.”

Eventually, wealthy French women (who were so used to doing nothing that the sight of anyone doing any work at all made them woozy) began asking their dressmakers to sew the buttons on the other side of the split to make it easier for their (mostly right-handed) servants to fasten while facing them so they could keep a sharp gaze lest the help start mumbling any of that business about the impending destruction of the aristocracy.

That sort of answers your question, although it doesn’t explain why we still do it today. Barbra Streisand probably has a sycophant on the payroll to zip her up every day. Liza Minelli too, I bet. But most of today’s bacon-depositing, pan-frying, reminding-their-men-of-their-manhood females have been dressing themselves since Title IX went into effect in 1972. So why does Land’s End still sew the girl-buttons on the wrong side?

The answer, of course, is left-handers. They run everything. Did you know that four of the last six presidents were southpaws? And we all know the current guy, like Jimmy Carter, is prevented by the sinister Shadow Government from getting his filthy right hand near anything of consequence. Bob Dole was just an ordinary right-hander from Kansas until a battlefield injury forced him to start writing with his left hand. Then he became the most powerful man in the Senate.

Consider this: Dave, Jay, Conan, and Craig. Which two are left-handed and which two are right handed? I see you’re catching on.

When you were a kid did you ever get to class late and have to sit in one of those annoying left-handed desks? Or fumble with those green-handled scissors? These are just a few of the indignities we righties suffer under left-handed occupation. Sadly, right-handed children and women suffer most of all.

Left-handed women, however, are sitting pretty.

Except, of course, for the left-handed woman who buttons Barbra Streisand’s silk blouse every morning. Her life sucks.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Kevin Guilfoile’s novel, Cast of Shadows (titled Wicker in the UK), is now available in paperback. He is also the co-author (with John Warner) of the best-selling book My First Presidentiary: A Scrapbook by George W. Bush. He lives in the Chicago area with his wife Mo, his sons Max and Vaughn, and a cat you wouldn’t like. More by Kevin Guilfoile