Let me tell you about this dress: It’s black raw silk with princess sleeves, a cinched waist, a high collar and very short hemline. It’s the kind of dress you’d wear to a 1960s advertising agency or a very scandalous funeral. It hits every high note on my style scale, in fact, it’s perfect, except: it buttons from the back. The problem is not just a button. It’s the button on the back of my favorite vintage dress that I just cannot reach.
Here’s why this drives me crazy: a) I can reach all five of the other buttons b) this button happens to be positioned right at the center of my back where my bra line rests c) the hole it presents when unbuttoned is very revealing — not only in the literal sense, but in the way that world can see a simple fact of my life. That breezeway to my back lets the very perceptive know — without a word — that I live alone. I have no helping hands. When I get dressed it’s usually a solo project. It’s not a secret, and not usually a source of shame, unless I’m wearing the weight of it on my back.
Inevitably, I leave the house looking almost put together, in the hopes that no one notices the opening exposing my bra hook. And inevitably someone always notices.
If you’re a fellow vintage-hound, you understand there is a certain harmony that comes with finding a dress designed for some woman from another era that fits you both physically and psychologically. It’s a kind of “Quantum Leap” moment, where you step into the suit of another generation. What frustrates me about the button on my favorite vintage dress is that I can never completely close the gap. Between two buttons, the fabric is a loudmouth, letting the whole world know I am not the woman intended for this dress.
Recently, I started noticing that all of my favorite vintage dresses and blouses pre-dating the 1970s feature some sort of back button. After a little over-thinking and some Internet investigative work, I realized why: Women dressed differently before the rise of second wave feminism. As in, they physically got dressed differently.
Designers weren’t impractical in assigning back closures, women were just expected to have more helping hands. In 1952, 75 percent of women married by the age of 21, meaning they went from their parents house to their husband’s house. There was always someone there to help with the buttons.
The architecture of clothing is a footnote in the history of divided sexes, and this is particularly true with buttons. Even today men’s shirts open to the right side, while women’s shirts open to the left side. The reasoning, according to historians, is that most people are right-handed and while men often tended to dress themselves, women usually had a family member, or depending on their class, a servant to help them dress. The buttons on women’s shirts were designed for someone else (a righty) to fasten.