Buttoning it up right

There are several theories as to why men and women’s clothes are buttoned on opposite sides. I subscribe to the theory that mens’ buttons are on the wearer’s right side because men have tended to dress themselves over the centuries whereas women had help in getting dressed by a maid, mother, husband, or sister, and so the buttons are placed to make it easier for someone else to use. In fact, buttons on women’s outfits were rare until the 1870s, hooks and eyes were more commonly used, and before that, straight pins.

Last weekend I acquired a women’s Royal Canadian Air Force jacket from 1942 for the collection. I don’t normally acquire partial uniforms without provenance, but this piece intrigued me. Founded in July 1941 as the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (CWAAF) their name was changed to the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division in February 1942. Women in this branch were commonly referred to as WDs. They were disbanded in December 1946.

The woman on the far left is the only WD with left hand buttoning and the WD on the far right has fake pockets.

What I thought was  interesting about this jacket was that it buttoned like a man’s, and the pockets are fake. I am by no means a Canadian military uniform historian, but I thought those features made the jacket worthy of acquiring for the collection. In researching this combination of men’s buttoning and fake pockets I came across this image that showed several versions for women’s uniforms, including real and fake pockets, and left and right hand buttoning. All of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) uniforms in the collection have the traditional left hand side buttoning for women, so I don’t know if this is an air force thing or what the explanation is – anybody know?

3 thoughts on “Buttoning it up right

  1. Hi Jonathan

    Are all the pockets on your 1942 jacket fake including the breast pockets? In 1943 the design of the RCAFWD jacket changed and patch pockets were introduced. When I first saw the woman on the far right I thought the jacket looked to have patch pockets but they do look suspiciously flat! Her divided skirt was also a design that apparently was replaced in 1943 by the plain front skirt worn by some of the women seen in the photo. From my research, the officers uniform jacket did not change. The tunic jacket was based on the British WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) which buttoned left to right which in turn copied the original British men’s military tunic. This establishes the importance of being a united front during war. I think that may explain the L to R buttoning question.

    As to the woman wearing the jacket with the right to left buttoning. There were a lot Canadian textile companies producing military uniforms. It was probably quite possible even with government guidelines to manufacture a jacket with R to L buttoning. Do you know the date of the photograph and where it was taken?

    The CWAC was a non-combatant branch of the Canadian army and maybe that is the significant point. The buttoning to the left perhaps reflected that fact although this is not to take away from the contribution that CWAC made to the war effort. I note also the design of the CWAC jacket has only one breast pocket which makes the look of the jacket less military.

    • Thank-you for the great information explaining the association with British uniforms – I knew somebody would know or have a better idea of why the jacket was the way it was. The association with British uniforms – Canadians entered the war looking like Brits and left the war looking more like Americans! I am adding a picture of my jacket to show the fake breast pockets. I don’t have a date on the picture – I found it online.

  2. There could be a couple of reasons for the fake pockets. War uniforms required the ” greatest possible economy of cloth with no loss of utility.” The Canadian army and air force had their own tailoring units where damaged clothing was cleaned, repaired and re-issued to servicemen at home. This may have applied also to women serving in the RCAFWD. Salvaging the wool fabric scraps from pattern cutting for re-use was also carried out. It may be that the uniforms not worn by women in active battle-front service were designed with false pockets because they weren’t that critical a feature. Probably there is an order in some archive with that instruction.

    Another possible reason is the availability of wool cloth used for the uniforms. During the war Canada imported 80-85% of its wool mainly from Australia and New Zealand and Australasian shipments were sometimes erratic. The Canadian manufacturing industries were working flat out to produce the wool cloth for uniforms and met the demands for uniforms from not only the Dominions but other countries as well. However, distribution and making sure that the cloth got to the “makers” on time was challenging. So, if the the cloth was delayed and pressure on the uniform makers was to get the finished garment out on time meant false pockets on the RCAFWD jackets then perhaps the order was to save time by doing that. The shortage of skilled labor in the textile industries during this period was severe so possible some tailoring companies found it difficult to meet the standards required.

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