Lifestyle Journal

  • Shirt Tales: A brief history of menswear’s most enduring style

Shirt Tales: A brief history of menswear’s most enduring style

There is perhaps no other item of apparel that defines a man’s style quite like the shirt – they’ve been a staple of men’s wardrobes for as long as anyone can remember and although athleisure types would probably beg to differ, it’s difficult to imagine a world without them.

Like most things that have stood the test of time, the shirt’s evolution was a slow and steady affair over millennia, but there are certain milestones in its development worth taking note of, which we’ve helpfully rounded up here.

Hollywood icon, Gary Cooper in a crisp white shirt, on the set of ‘The First Kiss’, 1928.

 

3500BC

One of the earliest examples of a shirt, was discovered in an Egyptian tomb by the Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie, in 1913. It is made from linen spun from flax fibres – as was nearly all Ancient Egyptian cloth – and dates from around 3500BC. It’s safe to assume that there was more than one example made, so clearly, the shirt goes back a long way. The fact they’re still very much a fixture of men’s wardrobes today, means it’s unlikely they’ll be going off the style agenda anytime soon.

An illustration of Ancient Egyptian linen attire from ‘The Costumes of All Nations’, 1882.
 

1500AD 

Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, shirts were regarded as underwear, providing a washable barrier between the skin and outer garments, which were never laundered – largely due to the labour involved in the weekly wash before the advent of washing machines and also because people weren’t as particular about their personal hygiene as we are now. This idea of the shirt as underwear is still evident today – in certain formal situations, such as black-tie dinners, weddings or race-meetings (think Royal Ascot), it is still considered bad form for a gentleman to remove his jacket and show his shirtsleeves; particularly in the presence of ladies. Back in the day, it was the equivalent of swanning into the office in your boxers and not much else.

At this time, shirts didn’t have buttons either – they were simply slipped over the head and were made of much coarser linen than we would be used to now.  Shirts were also viewed as a status symbol on account of their expense – they were so highly prized, in fact, they were sometimes given as wedding dowries in lieu of cash.

Gian Antonio Fasolo, Ippolito da Porto, Musei Civici Vicenza.

 

1827

In 1827, an American housewife by the name of Hannah Montague, became so fed up of scrubbing the grime from her husband’s shirts on a daily basis, that she decided to take a pair of scissors and cut the dirty collars off. Far from being an act of sartorial vandalism, this was a significant moment in the history of menswear. Mrs Montague had invented removable collars – which she could exchange for clean ones, without the need to launder the entire shirt. The detachable collar soon came to be widely adopted and offered the illusion of wearing a fresh shirt every day (which Mr Montague insisted upon), as only the collar would be on show. It also gave the impression of owning more shirts than you actually did, due to the ability to switch collar styles each morning, depending on your mood.

‘A portrait of an artist’, by Michel Martin Drolling, 1819. The subject wears a high-collar regency-era shirt.

 

1871

Around 1871, the shirt came to take on the form we’re familiar with today. Buttons were incorporated into the design for the first time – with this feature originally patented by London tailor, Brown, Davis and Co. The precursors to modern collars also made their debut around this time.

It’s always been a sign of prestige to wear white shirting, as you would a decent amount of capital to employ staff to keep them looking pristine. It was about this time that the expression ‘white-collar worker’ came into being, denoting someone who was wealthy enough to maintain a clean, respectable appearance and not engage in the sort of dirty manual work which could soil a clean white shirt.

Victorian dandies wearing stiff-collar shirts and cravats of the period, The Gentleman's magazine, January 1870.

  

1900

As we’ve already learnt, the white shirt was always held in high regard by style purists. Printed styles were viewed with suspicion – they could conceal dirt more easily and allowed one’s hygiene standards to slip. By the 1900s however, fashion prevailed and striped and patterned designs began to be more widely accepted. The white shirt still continued to reign supreme in business and formal evening dress, though.

Cluett and Arrow advertisement by J.C. Leyendecker, showing striped shirts with removable collars, 1907.

 

1930

By the 1930s, the pace of life was becoming ever faster and the modern world as we know it was beginning to take shape. Men no longer had to time to fiddle with collar studs to attach removable collars (or the funds to employ a manservant to do it for them) and fixed shirt collars became the norm – the blueprint for today’s shirts was born.

Illustration from Esquire magazine of men’s shirts and accessories, November 1936.

 

1965

Although they had been around since the 1920s, chest pockets became a more common feature on shirts during the 1960s as the advent of central heating caused a decline in the popularity of the three-piece suit. In the absence of a waistcoat and its many pockets, they provided a little extra storage space.

John Hamm  as Mad Men’s Don Draper, wearing a 1960s shirt with a chest pocket.

 

1977

In the ‘70s (and the proceeding decade of excess) things became, well, a little more experimental. Cultural shifts saw a casualisation of dress, with a bending of traditional rules – some would say  – almost to breaking point. Shirts were not spared this treatment, with flounces and ruffles and excessively large collars making their debut, alongside bold (and often garish) prints – John Travolta in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever being a fine case in point. Whether this was good or bad taste is a much-debated topic. We’ll let you make up your own mind.

John Travolta as Tony Manero donning a fetching Hawaiian shirt in Saturday Night Fever.

 

2014 - Present

Luca Faloni revamps the linen shirt for the modern man with his signature Portofino design. While still respecting the techniques of traditional shirt making, the brand has added its own touches that make the Portofino style a go-to for the discerning dresser. Details like its subtle cutaway ‘Paramontura’ collar – which maintains an elegant and lasting shape when unbuttoned – alongside premium fabric and mother-of-pearl buttons are a testament to the label’s fine Italian craftsmanship. And the fact it comes in linen, brushed cotton and oxford cotton means it’s a piece for all seasons. In short, it’s the type of shirt the men of yesteryear would have given their right arm to get their hands on – although we might be a tad biased, perhaps. 

Luca Faloni Oxford Cotton Shirt £125.

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