Unbuttoning the History of the Shirt

How a modest undergarment became the most elegant, versatile and fundamental of men’s wardrobe staples – and an ensemble’s focal point in its own right.

Richard Gere and Lauren Hutton in American Gigolo, 1980.

“They’re so functional as well as beautiful,” says Jermyn Street shirt-maker Emma Willis of the male shirt – a garment which is not just her passion in life, but also her vocational calling. “Everything about it – the mechanics that give it maximum flexibility without too much volume and so on – appeals enormously. It’s such a wholesome product in terms of purity of materials.” Needless to say, The Rake heartily agrees.

The word ‘shirt’ has become a catch-all one, referring to a variety of upper body garments - from slim-fit pieces in Swiss poplin and organic pique with cutaway collars at the top of the scale, tonylon atrocities worn by Stella-bloated football fans who can only iron them properly with the aid of a wok at the bottom. But a ‘shirt’ in gentleman’s parlance – as in what some Americans separate from the chaff by calling it a “dress shirt” – is the ultimate staple garment for men of all backgrounds and inclinations. (Even dot-com hippies, Trustafarians and student dweebs who brag about not owning a suit almost certainly possess at least one garment with collars, sleeves, cuffs and a vertical fastenable opening.)

While most sartorial historians would trace the history of the shirt back to a linen garment from 3000 BC found in 1913 in a First Dynasty Egyptian tomb at Tarkan, they are unable to come up with a universally accepted, linear narrative from there to here. Plenty of unequivocal facts about the modern shirt’s lineage, however, do exist. Fourth Century night gowns and under garments should be counted as ancestors, as should 12th century finery in linen and silk and 16th century, lavishly embroidered, puffy garments topped with frilly, lace ruffs.

We also know that, for centuries, the bulk of a man’s shirt would nearly always be hidden under his outerwear - exceptions being lowly figures such as shepherds in medieval artworks, or bar-room carousers such as Tom Rakewell in Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, gloriously drunk and surrounded by a flurry of prostitutes.


February 2022


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