From its humble origins as medieval underwear to its renaissance in the office block, Ernest delves into why the white shirt has proven everlasting as the classic clothing staple
“A garment for the upper part of the body, made of linen, calico, flannel, silk, or other washable material. Originally always worn next to the skin; now sometimes an undershirt or ‘vest’ is worn beneath it. Formerly a garment common to both sexes, but now an article of male attire with long sleeves (often terminating in wristbands or cuffs).” Oxford English Dictionary
The crisp white shirt has ridden the tumultuous tide of social and sartorial changes since its origins in the Middle Ages and holds fast as a timeless icon of British men’s formal (and often informal) attire. It has long dominated the menswear landscape but never more so than now, with its prevalence in hugely influential American series like Mad Men and Suits, setting off the cut of a 1960s tailored suit or the boldness of a tie to striking effect.
The oldest known example of the “highly sophisticated” shirt as we know it was discovered by archaeologist Flinders Petrie in an Egyptian tomb, dating back to c.3000 BC. Over the centuries, the collar widened to epic proportions with frills and ruffles in the 16th century and shrunk back to modest and respectable sizes in the 19th century, while in the 18th century, shirt tails were considered to be a sufficient substitute for underpants. In 1930s America and 1970s Britain, the colour of your shirt connoted your social status, hence the term ‘white collar workers’ for middle-upper class office types and ‘blue collar workers’ for lower class industrial workers.
These days, just about anyone can wear a crisp white shirt without declaring a social or political stance and can sport it open-collared with a battered pair of cords as well as shipshape with a sharp suit and shades. That is why we love it so.
Ever wondered why Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice blushes so deeply at Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy striding out of the lake in his wet white shirt? Aside from the fact you can see his nip nips, up until the late 19th century, a visible, uncovered shirt was considered improper, as it was really worn as underwear. In medieval artworks, the only people depicted wearing uncovered shirts were humble characters, such as shepherds and prisoners. Put your nip nips away, Colin, you ruffian.
Collars, cuffs and yokes
“Would you like a two epic split-back yoke on your shirt, sir?” No, the tailor isn’t asking if you’d like him to crack a pairof giant eggs on your finery; the yoke is the fabric fitted across the top shoulder area, which enhances the fit of the shirt. Collars come in various shapes; there’s the windsor collar to accommodate the windsor knot tie, the button-down collar so you can fasten the tips down to the shirt and the wing-collar; perfect for the bow tie. Cuff-wise, you can choose single (barrel) cuffs for a more informal style or double (French) cuffs, which are twice as long as normal cuffs and worn folded back on themselves and secured with a cufflink; the done thing at black tie events.
Cotton is the daddy when it comes to classic white shirt material, for obvious reasons, such as its breathability and durability, but there are a choice of weaves you can go for, depending on the occasion and what you’re wearing it with. Oxford weave has a grainy, basket-weave appearance, making it the go-to for a casual look, while poplin is smooth and glassy for a more formal sheen. There’s lots of other natural fibres besides cotton revolutionising shirting as we know it: there’s wool; ramie (a kind of nettle); silk; heck, even bamboo and soya.