The shirt is probably the most common item ever worn by man and any well-dressed man is likely to have several of them in many colours and styles. But where does the shirt come from and how has this simple garment evolved over time?
The modern shirt that a typical man wears on an almost daily basis is a garment that dates back into the Middle Ages and before. Exactly when it was invented is unknown. Most shirts were cheap and handmade at home out of wool, but by the 1300s, men started looking for people who made shirts for a living. It was at this time that the shirtmaker started to rise in European cities, manufacturing comfortable shirts out of cotton, silk and linen. These shirts felt much better against the skin than ordinary wool and the demand for comfort meant that the shirt began to spread around the world. The basic shirt remained the same for centuries, as it does today. It was the components of the shirt that changed with the times.
The Rise of the Shirt
Originally, all shirts, as with all other garments, were handmade. If you wanted a shirt, you went to a shirtmaker, just like if you wanted shoes, you went to a cobbler, and a tailor for your suits. In the 1700s and the 1800s, the rise of the Industrial Revolution meant that shirts could now be mass-produced cheaply from cotton, mostly grown in the Deep South of the United States of America and sent to cotton-mills in the nothern states, or to England and Europe. While the shirt’s popularity spread, its status remained the same.
A Social History of the Shirt
These days, it’s common for men to show off their shirts. You wear a shirt open-collared with a pair of trousers or jeans. Or you open the front of your jacket to show off your shirt. Or you wear a waistcoat but ditch the jacket, to show off your shirtsleeves. Or you might spend fifteen minutes trying to figure out whether or not a particular tie goes with a particular shirt. However, this trend of showing off your shirt as an item of ‘designer fashion’ and style is actually a pretty modern one. Prior to the second quarter of the 1900s, good manners dictated that you never showed your shirt in public. At all. Not the back, the front, the sleeves and certainly not the shirttails. Why? Because the shirt, like your briefs or your boxer-shorts, was considered an item of underwear, a frame of mind that had existed for centuries before.
Because the humble shirt was, for centuries, relegated to and given the same level of decency as your lucky boxer-shorts with the picture of the ‘Blasting Zone’ roadsign on the back, a typical shirt was rarely washed. While today it’s common for a man to change his shirts every couple of days, prior to the end of the First World War, most men wore shirts for much longer intervals. It wasn’t uncommon for one shirt to be worn for two days. Three days. A week. Two weeks. Sometimes even a month…or more. Don’t forget that the modern washing-machine hasn’t been around for very long. Before its invention, the family wash was an event that took several days of boiling, soaking, soaping, scrubbing, beating, rinsing, scrubbing, rinsing, mangling, drying, ironing, starching and folding. Because of the effort and time required to do a single load of laundry, which could take up to a week, men were eager to wear their shirts for as long as possible and to only wash them when it was absolutely necessary. And because of this, the shirt was naturally kept hidden from public scrutiny as much as possible.
Anyone who’s done a lot of work in a shirt and worn it for a while and then had to handwash it, will know that a shirt’s collar and cuffs can turn black from the accumulation of grime, sweat and skin-flakes that comes away from the human body during the course of the day. With the majority of a man’s shirt hidden by a waistcoat and jacket or a sweater or some other suitable overgarment, it wasn’t necessary to change it until it was absolutely essential. But the exposed parts of the shirt – the collar and cuffs, which could become filthy after just one day’s heavy use, would naturally have to be changed on a regular basis, since this was something that couldn’t be hidden from the public eye.
…and how they’re used
To combat the problem of infrequent and long wash-days, early shirts came with detachable collars and cuffs, not something found on most shirts today. While a shirt was worn for days or weeks on end, the collars and cuffs were changed and replaced as necessary, perhaps once a week, or more, if needed. The collars and cuffs on shirts were held on with special buttons called studs. There were two studs for the collar (front and back) and additional studs for the cuffs (one stud for each sleeve). While most people are familiar with all manner of cuffs, from one-button, two-button, convertible cuffs and the variations of the French cuff (for which cufflinks must be worn), detachable shirt-collars have largely slipped from the public consciousness. Here’s some of the more common collars…
The wing-collar, so-called because of the two ‘wings’ at the front, is popularly associated with the turn of the last century. Wing-collars are typically worn with more formal attire, such as White Tie, but they were also popular everyday collars. This particular type of collar retained its unique shape thanks to copius amounts of starch used in the ironing process that helped the collar stay stiff, even in the hottest, soggiest weather. As you may have guessed, the wing-collar doesn’t fold down. So if you’re going to wear one, you better know how to tie a good necktie or bowtie, because any imperfections in the knot will be extremely visible.
Named for the prestigeous Eton College in the United Kingdom, the broad Eton Collar has been a part of the school’s uniform since the 1800s.
The spear-point collar was popular in the United States during the first half of the 20th century, distinguished by its excessively long, pointed collar-tips.
Popular during the Victorian era and well into the early 20th century prior to the Second World War, was the club collar. Unlike the other collars shown so far, the club collar has rounded collar-points.
This flat collar is the one traditionally worn by members of the clergy (hence its name), such as priests, vicars, and pastors. It was invented in the mid-1800s by the Rev. Dr. Donald McLeod of Scotland, and by the late 19th century, had become a common part of clerical attire.
The Imperial collar was another popular collar of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. This was one of the more extreme collars of the era and could be upwards of two or three inches wide. This could make it a bit uncomfortable to wear and probably thankfully, it was considered a formal collar, only to be worn on special occasions.
Because a man could have a wide variety and large number of collars in his wardrobe, they were often stored in leather collar-boxes such as this one:
While some collars were soft and floppy, others, particularly the nonfolding rigid ones such as the Wing collar and the Imperial collar, were treated extensively with laundry starch to help them keep their shape (as well as making them easier to clean).
Detachable shirt-cuffs also existed and like with collars, they were often treated with starch to make them stiff so that they would hold their shape. As mentioned earlier, cuffs were held onto a man’s shirtsleeves with cuff-studs. A pair of detachable cuffs are shown below:
The two buttonholes at the tops of the cuffs accomodated the cuff-studs. The two other buttonholes further down existed for the use of cufflinks.
A big manufacturer of mens’ shirts, collars and cuffs was Cluett, Peabody & Co. of Troy in New York State, U.S.A. They popularised the famous ‘Arrow’ brand of collars which were popular from the early 1900s up to the early 1930s. The Arrow collar lives on today in the lyrics of the Irving Berlin song ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz‘ (“…High hats and Arrow collars, white spats and lots of dollars…”).
Apart from early shirts having removable and adjustable collars and cuffs, they also had adjustable shirtsleeves.
Early shirts came in one size. Extra large. Don’t forget that, because the shirt was considered an undergarment, no thought was given to its fit on a man’s body, since nobody was ever likely to see it. Shirts were sized roughly according to neck circumfrence and shoulder-width, but everything else was measured and made to be as accomodating as possible. This included shirtsleeves. Prior to the arrival of the modern shirt that we know today, shirtsleeves were all made and measured to be extra-long. This way, they would fit the largest man in comfort.
But what happened if you weren’t the largest man? What happened if, instead of being Robert Wadlow (8ft 11in), you were instead James Madison, who towered over ants at a staggering 5ft 4in.? Obviously, shirtsleeves would be too long. And if you weren’t able to find a shirtmaker, or as was more likely the case, weren’t rich enough to get a shirtmaker to custom-measure your sleeves, then what did you do?
Most men utilised these things:
Forever associated with bartenders, writers, banker-tellers and barbershop quartets, there was a time where almost every well-dressed man owned at least one pair of these things and kept them on his dressing-table. They’re called sleeve-garters. Made of elastic material (or in this case, springy steel), sleeve-garters were worn on a man’s shirtsleeves, just above the elbow. They worked by holding back the extra sleeve-material that would otherwise cascade down a man’s arms and prevent his hands from doing any useful work. They were also handy for holding a man’s shirtsleeves back if he was doing heavy work and didn’t want to get his sleeves and cuffs dirty.
Thanks to the modern, made-to-measure, off-the-rack shirt, sleeve-garters aren’t as often used as once they were. However, you can still buy them (they’re usually very cheap) and if ever you have a shirt you like but which you can’t wear on account of the sleeves being too long, you might want to break out grandpa’s sleeve-garters and slap them on. They can still come in handy.
The Modern Shirt
The shirt with detachable collars and cuffs died out during the interwar period and the shirt which we know today was born. With improvements in washing and cleaning clothes and the introduction of the first washing-machines in the 1920s, clothing could now be washed faster and more frequently. Public demand for shirts with detachable collars and cuffs gradually died away during the 1930s and by the middle of the century were more or less ancient history. Cloth-rationing during the Second World War probably played a significant part in their demise, since it would’ve been difficult to find the extra cloth needed for detachable collars and cuffs.
You can still buy shirt-collars and cuffs (either brand new or vintage) as well as collar-studs, shirt-studs and collarless shirts today, although understandably, they are much rarer than the shirts that most people have today. They’re still manufactured for formalwear, or for people seeking an authentic period look in their wardrobe for any variety of reasons from a desire for vintage style, historical reenacting or sheer convenience and comfort. Collar-boxes can still be found cheaply at antiques stores and flea-markets.