Buttoned/Unbuttoned by Lila Allen

Multimedia, Prose


Daniel Huntington, "Portrait of a Young Boy," 1860.
Daniel Huntington, “Portrait of a Young Boy,” 1860.


In the summer of 2001, I was fourteen. The North Carolina air outside was hot and thick with humidity, like being inside of a mouth, but I spent the days in the frigid galleries of a museum, where I learned about the portraits and landscapes that filled the building’s carpeted halls. I remember it clearly: a painting along the western wall, by an American artist, of a young child. Around four years old, he had a milky complexion, plump cheeks, and soft, shoulder-length curls. One of his feet perched on the wooden rocker of a toy horse, turning his body into a classical contrapposto. He wore a striped frock, and the artist, Daniel Huntington, had rendered the garment so deliciously that you felt you could nearly reach out and grab a fold of the fabric with your fist. Argyle socks climbed the lengths of the child’s stubby calves, ending just below the ruffled hem of his underclothing.

We learned that though the outfit appeared dated and feminine, it was unmistakably a suit for young boys in its time, 1860. One detail gave it away: the thin line of buttons that stretched up the belly. The docent explained that had the subject been a girl, she would have had buttons too, but they wouldn’t have shown in the painting. The fastenings would have run down the length of her back, out of reach. Girls, she told us, didn’t dress themselves then. They were dressed by others. I recognize now that this was the moment I realized what it meant to be born female: you don’t button; you are buttoned.

I think about my own modern dressing, about the overalls my mother gave me when I was the same age as the boy in the painting. The metal hook-and-closures were easy, accessible to my tiny hands and their limited fine motor skills. I handed them down to my brother, who is three years my junior. Much of what we wore couldn’t be categorized by gender. They were garments intended for transfer.

But the ceremonial clothes of my life have been different: holiday outfits, party dresses, gowns. They’ve been fitted with elaborate lines of buttons, hooks, and zippers, always down the back. My mother’s hand guided me into these dresses, and now my husband’s hand has replaced hers. Through them, my body is secured until the night is over. Without their assistance, my back is left exposed, pinched in the middle by the squeezing hem of my tights. I don’t dress; I am dressed.

I found the old painting today. In it, the boy grips the reins of his toy horse, a choice that likely pleased the child’s parents, who would have read the gesture as anticipating his prosperous future. What became of that boy? What kind of man was he? And did he ever know what it meant to have his buttons in the front?

Eight summers before the one I spent in the museum, my mother summoned me home when she learned I’d been walking around the neighborhood with no shirt, as I’d seen boys do. It was hot then, too. July, and the only relief to be found was the lukewarm water from the garden hose. My mother didn’t explain to me at the time that she’d called me in because I was a girl. Had someone phoned her to let her know what her daughter was up to? My breasts back then were so flat they were nearly sunken. I still have the same moles. And my skin was the same creamy pale then that it is today, because after that afternoon, my chest never saw the sun again.


Lila Allen is a writer and researcher based in Brooklyn. She holds a MA in Design Research, Writing, and Criticism from the School of Visual Arts, where she earned the Paula Rhodes Memorial Award for exceptional achievement in design criticism.