The history of the shirt is one of the most spectacular transformation stories in fashion. Initially, shirts were considered an undergarment, and only later became a common sight in everyday wear. Now, it is a quintessentially stylish garment and an indispensable element of a gentleman’s attire.
Once upon a time...
It is commonly believed that tunics worn by nomads in Central Asia constitute the prototype of a modern shirt. These tunics were adopted by the Sumerians and Babylonians, and then ancient Egyptians. In the Middle Ages, a shirt constituted the only layer of clothing worn by the poorest peasants, who donned one while working in the fields. For the wealthy, though, it was simply an undergarment.
Back then, shirts were very simple in design, and usually made of undyed linen, wool or hemp. First, a cross-shaped piece was cut from a narrow, 70-cm strip of fabric. Then, the sides and sleeves were sewn together, resulting in a T-shaped shirt. The neck opening was either tied with a ribbon or simply left as it was.
The following ages brought numerous changes in the length, shape and colour of shirts. First, shirts were widened by inserting panels, mainly under the armpits, and embellished with embroidery or lace. Collars and cuffs were recycled — removed from worn-out shirts and put on new ones. The fabric also became richer, gaining golden or silver embroidery. Finally, plain cloth was gradually replaced with other fabrics, such as coloured silk. Later, coats and waistcoats were increasingly worn over shirts, and the shirt itself became even more extravagant, with pleats and ruffles placed both on the front and sleeves.
Age of sophistication
In the first decades of the 19th century, simple elegance dominated — the time of lavish Baroque excess was gone. The element of the shirt which underwent most frequent changes was the collar. From high and stiff ones with tips covering cheeks, to widely spread or short band collars — the style changed constantly. Women were only allowed to wear shirts later. In the 20th century, shirts were increasingly worn under the bodice, taking on the function of a slip.
The 19th century brought changes to the entire construction of the shirt. The front became shorter than the back and was now buttoned-up all the way (until that time, it had been pulled on over the head). When it comes to colours, white dominated. However, over time, patterned shirts with white collars and cuffs gained popularity.
Age of maturity
The fit of a classic dress shirt has not really changed since the early 20th century. The next decades only brought new types of collars and cuffs, as well as a few new shirt fabrics. Though the contemporary shirt is an element of everyday attire in its own right, we are still reminded at times of its origin as an undergarment. In etiquette guides, one might still read that during social and business meetings, a true gentleman should never take off his jacket, exposing his shirt. Some people might say that a man in his shirtsleeves is not fully dressed.