Today it is part of any male (and often female) wardrobe: the business shirt. A symbol of sovereignty, business sense and elegance. The shirt accompanies us to the job interview, the crucial meeting, the wedding and the first visit with the parents-in-law. However how did the timeless classic come into being? Following a small biography about the arguably most important garment of a man.
Onto the skin
The shirt worked its way up in the course of time. Its predecessors existed already in the year 1’000 B.C., but until the end of the 19th century they served as underclothing only. The Old High German word ‘Hemedi’ actually meant skin. At the beginning it reached to the ground, was without any buttons and was worn as underwear or as pyjama – hence a nightshirt in its original form. In the beginning, the man needed to slip into the button-less shirt. In the middle ages, first forms of lace adornments and exchangeable collars appeared. In the Victorian era the white shirt became a symbol of status (1837-1901). The pure color did not only reveal a good job, where the man did not have to get dirty, but also was a sign of having enough money to regularly let the shirts be cleaned.
The first models were produced out of linen – only with the industrial revolution, at the end of the 18th century, the softer cotton became less expensive and therefore a more popular shirt material.
Against the collar
The history of the shirt can also be read off its collar. During the middle age they came in a thin cuff-look, while the extremely stiff collar was a symbol of the high society in 1840 – the harder and higher the collar, the more exquisite the shirt. In its most extreme form the collar reached up to the man’s ears. The less privileged without a big budget for the tailor combined the upper shirt with a detachable collar by himself.
Famous was also the wing collar. In German it got its name, ‘father murderer’, due to the sharp collar-edges, which frequently caused skin crack on the neck. While the shirt used to be worn with a scarf, it stunted, after the emergence of the downwards bent collar, to a symbolic bow tie.
During the First World War, softer shirts with attached collars were given to the soldiers. The man got used to this comfortable style and triggered a heated debate after the war between conservative stiff collar wearers and the new soft collar fans. Both forms are still existing today – whereas the soft, overlying collars can be seen on casual shirts and the business shirt’s stiff colors gained some comfort.
Until the last shirt
In the 19th century, the shirt got tailored tighter to the body. Until the end of the 19th century, the white shirt stayed a symbol of wealth – still today it is considered to be the most elegant form of the shirt. At the beginning of the 20th century todays shirt with the continuous button strip appeared and the time of the slip in shirt was definitely over.
By the way, the breast pocket is an invention of the 60ies; with the decline of the vest underneath the suit, an alternative place of deposit was needed.
The dress shirt is arguably one of the oldest pieces of cloth still existing. It might have changed its design over time, but it never got out of fashion.