The History of Shirts
The world's oldest preserved garment is a linen shirt from Egypt made around 3000 BC. Loose fitting shirts were worn in hot climates as outerwear to keep the wearer cool. But in Europe, up until the 19th Century, shirts were considered underwear and framed by the social and religious mores of the age, were often associated with erotic taboo.
In the Middle Ages a shirt was a plain, un-dyed garment made of linen and worn next to the skin under heavier clothing. In medieval art the shirt is only featured, uncovered, on lowly people such as shepherds and prisoners. Caravaggio caused shock when he featured men and women wearing shirts in his paintings of the 1300s.
Venice was famous for its’ shirt-making in the 1500’s Century due to its’ import of new fabrics. Collars first became marks of fashion in the 16th Century when men's shirts began to be embroidered with frills or lace at the neck and cuffs.
In the 17th Century men's shirts were allowed to show, with much the same erotic impact as visible underwear today.
In the 18th Century, men relied on the long tails of shirts to serve the function of underpants and men were considered indecent if they did not wear shirts to bed. But the shirt was starting to come out of the closet as long neck frills, or jabots, became fashionable.
For 3000 years shirts were mostly made from linen but this changed in the 19th Century when cotton became cheaper and more widely available and an explosion in shirt making ensued. But shirts were still mainly plain-coloured casual wear for low class workers only. A gentleman seen wearing a sky-blue shirt was both unthinkable and scandalous. The taboo remained and even in 1879, a visible shirt with nothing over it was considered improper by society.
Western women first embraced the shirt as a fashion item in 1860 when bright red Garibaldi shirts - worn by Italian freedom fighters - were worn and popularized by the Empress of France.
In 1900 an average shirt was described as being made of cotton with linen bosom, wristbands and cuffs prepared for stiffening with starch and the collar and wristbands usually separate and adjustable.
The 20th century saw an explosion of shirt making fuelled by new manufacturing methods, mass media and the cinema. By the 1920s, the shirt had came into its’ own as both a mainstream utility and as a fashion item made in an increasing number of styles and bright colours.
From pure white shirts with flowing sleeves worn by Rudolph Valentino; the ‘Oxford’ worn by Humphrey Bogart; the cowboy shirts of John Wayne; the big collars and flowery shirts of the 1970’s to the Hawaiian shirt worn by Tom Sellek in TV series "Magnum PI; from dandy frills of the New Romantics to the ‘power shirts’ worn by high flyers and city slickers like Gordon Gecko in Wall Street and the eye-catching shirts worn by F1’s Eddie Jordan and Alfie Moon in Eastenders.
Today, a shirt is even more of a uniform than ever before. Worn by men or women, a shirt is a daily statement - of personality, fashion, politics and status. In the modern world the way we look and dress strongly affects what people expect from us; it expresses how we feel about ourselves and it determines how others treat us.
So, it’s worth considering the power of your shirt when you’re looking for the ‘right’ thing to wear before starting your day.