Origins: The Dress Shirt

Origins of the Dress Shirt
The term dress shirt is known as the "formal shirt" in the UK. For the sake of simplicity, we will lump them together and refer to both as simply "the dress shirt."

Dress shirts as we come to know of today first began to appear in Europe in the 17th century. They were seen as undergarments to protect high value clothing items such as waistcoats (suit vests) from the muck and grime that perspires from the human body. This was important especially during a time when clothing was painstakingly hand made.

They were especially prominent during the Victorian Era in Europe as they were seen as a symbol of social status. A crisp white dress shirt showed that a man did not need to do manual labor for a living. It marked him as one of society's elites as he did not need to get his hands dirty. Keeping white dress shirts clean was labor intensive at the time, therefore only an affluent man could afford to have a sufficient number of these shirts to be worn daily.


Victorian Era Men's Clothing
The high collar, stiff and starched, was also a status symbol during the time period. It showed that a man did not need the ease of movement characterized in manual labor, he was the manager, the employer, not the employee. 
There were several advancements that moved the dress shirt to increasing affordability to more men, one was the detachable collar, invented by Orlando Montague of New York City. She found that the collar needed washing significantly more than the shirt itself so by making the collar removable, she made white buttoned shirts easier to maintain and more affordable. 


Detachable Collar
The 20th Century
Near the turn of the century, the use of the dress shirt as a status symbol was quickly diminishing. The ever increasing expansion of industrialization and mass production made it available to the Everyman. Day laborers could own them and use them as "church shirts" for Sunday service. The rise of corporations also led to a gradual decrease in the number of laborers and an increase of administrative staff where white collared shirts would be appropriate.
Washing machines would then be popularized shortly after World War II which further decreased the cost of the dress shirt. With more men wearing buttoned shirts means more minds in the works of altering it to suit modern tastes. While Victorian Era shirts were characterized as loose fitting and strictly uniform. The late 20th century and 21st century has seen the rise of fashion fads that have come and gone. 


70's Fashion Fads
There are however several notable changes that have made there way to mainstream menswear.
  • Patterned and floral colored buttoned shirts have become the norm not only in casual settings, but in the office as well.
  • Shirts that are slim fitting (tapered at the waist) are becoming increasingly common.
  • Having a shirt untucked is common nowadays. 
  • Ties and other forms of neck-wear are no longer required when wearing a dress shirt. 
  • No one will bat an eye if you roll up the sleeves of your dress shirt (in the proper setting of course).

Modern menswear

The Takeaway: The past 150 years has seen much in the transformation of menswear. The dress shirt has been the center of it all. It began as an undershirt, then transformed into a social status symbol before finally becoming the versitle piece of menswear that we know today.  




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