From Nightgowns to Business Wear – the Interesting History of the Humble Shirt

Posted on February 23 2018

From Nightgowns to Business Wear – the Interesting History of the Humble Shirt

We all have a wide selection of shirts in our wardrobe. You probably haven’t given a second thought to the origins of these shirts and how they became so widely worn. Well, that will change today, as we think it’s far too interesting to be left unsaid.

The first shirt dates back to Ancient Egypt and was made of linen, but it probably wasn’t worn like the shirt we know and love today.

Early shirts were underwear

Worn to wick away moisture the early shirt was used as a nightgown by night, and underwear by day. It was a simple piece of clothing without a collar or cuffs, although it did have a hem that could be buttoned or tightened to suit the wearer.

Usually made from linen, or silk if you belonged to the upper classes and could afford the cost of luxurious materials, this was a staple item for centuries. By the time we hit the Middle Ages a fixed or detachable collar had been added, so it began to resemble the shirt we wear today.

From the 18th century the shirt had moved on to being a fashion item

The size of the collar grew to gigantic proportions and finely decorated with embroidery, lace and other finishes. This heralded the golden age of the tailor. Where the common man would rely on his wife and daughters to make his clothes, the gentleman would turn to a tailor for a finer garment.

The fixed collar disappeared, the shirt began to be cut to the shape of the body and colour was introduced – particularly to work and sports shirts. The white shirt was the preserve of the rich.

This continued right up to the 20th century where the shirt began to transform into what we know and love today.

World War 1 saw the shift from tailored shirts to mass production

Although the first button shirt was made in 1871 and registered by Brown, Davies & Co, it wasn’t until the 1920s onwards that we saw the modern shirt with buttons along the front. The fixed collar returned in the 1930s and has been there ever since.

Nylon was introduced in the 1950s, and for the first time we saw short-sleeved shirts. We also saw a change to suits around that time as men stopped wearing the traditional vest under the shirt, meaning a chest pocket was introduced to the jacket.

Today shirts are worn both sexes and come in a wide range of colours and styles

Though typically still worn by men, shirts are replacing the blouse for many women with endless design options to choose from. There really is no limit regarding colour, cut and design of a shirt these days, although one thing will always remain true. The finest shirts are handmade and follow a strong tradition of tailoring.

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