For my dad’s 61st birthday, I bought him a charcoal gray New York Mets zip-up hoodie from sportswear retailer Modell’s. After unwrapping the sweatshirt, my father tried it on and it fit, but he said it “zipped on the wrong side” for a man’s piece of clothing. Convinced the hoodie, which simply boasted an orange Mets logo on the left breast, was meant to be worn by women, he returned it.
While I knew I took the sweatshirt off a rack in the men’s section, I wondered how and why the zipper alone had the power to convince him that the otherwise unisex garment wasn’t for him.
“Once upon a time, people would be taught that,” fashion historian Amanda Hallay told HuffPost of men’s clothing zipping on one side and women’s on the other. “It was so ingrained in everyone.”
Zippers follow a gendered precedent that had already been set by buttons. (Though these days, not all articles of clothing follow the rule ― it’s more of a mixed bag.)
“The button was invented in the late Middle Ages, and because of the sumptuary laws, only wealthy women were allowed to have buttons on their clothing,” Hally, who runs The Ultimate Fashion History YouTube channel, explained. “Wealthy women were dressed by their maids, and so the buttons were positioned where they were for maids, as most people are right-handed. That’s where it all started.”
Drexel University fashion design program director Lisa Hayes told HuffPost that breastfeeding could also play a role in why garments for women started out fastening on the left side.
“Most people are holding their baby in the left hand, therefore they have their right hand to use for opening a garment,” Hayes said.
As times changed and technology advanced, zippers soon became preferable to buttons. “By the late 1930s, zippers had begun to replace buttons as the favored method for certain garment closures,” said Christina Frank, Savannah College of Art and Design’s assistant director of fashion exhibitions. “The placement of buttons adhered to gendered traditions, as seen in the examples of women’s tailored jackets from Alaïa-Adrian.”
The way zippers work makes them appear less gendered than their button predecessors. “When a zipper is closed, there is no visual indicator of which side the zipper-head was inserted on, unlike a button-down shirt, meaning that any possible significance is obscured,” Frank continued. “The mechanism of a zipper, or side fastener as it was referred to, allowed for some ambiguity.”
Now, as major retailers like ASOS, H&M and Macy’s and stars like Beyoncé, Celine Dion and Megan Rapinoe release gender-neutral clothing lines, the fashion world continues to move down a path of further ambiguity.
“It’s a long time coming,” Kent State associate fashion professor Noël Palomo-Lovinski told HuffPost. “Gender-neutral clothing has been around for a lot longer than anybody labeled it. As clothing has become more and more casual from the ’70s and ’80s onward, the zipper side means less and less.”
Marcia Alvarado, director of marketing for queer custom suit brand Sharpe Suiting, told HuffPost that the brand’s manufacturer still uses traditional patterns, but not all of their customers pay attention to fastener placement, although between 50% and 60% of Sharpe’s consumer base falls into “that androgynous middle ground” without a specifically feminine or masculine look.
“When it comes to the zippers or the buttons overlaying, half of our clients are getting a suit for the first time, so some of them are unaware,” she said. “And some of them bring it up, like, ‘I don’t like the way that the women’s are on this side.’ So we take that into consideration for each person.”
“I’m hoping that these details of which side the zippers and the button are on will start to go away, because of people’s ties to those male and female heteronormative ideas.”
A progressive younger generation is helping phase out traditional ideas about how people of different genders should dress. “Gen Zs are far more interested in not being defined by their gender, so it has become much more important for anybody who is giving them product, fashion or otherwise, to meet their standards,” Palomo-Lovinski said.
Alvarado hopes an increased demand for unisex clothing will lead to an elimination of gendered practices toward zipper and button placement and allow consumers to focus on how a garment fits rather than if it was intended for their gender.
“I’m hoping that these details of which side the zippers and the button are on will start to go away, because of people’s ties to those male and female heteronormative ideas,” Alvarado said. “As more genderless fashion designers are providing products that people like, I’m hoping those values will migrate away and people will just enjoy the garment as-is.”