Vintage Evening Shirts
In the early nineteenth century, day and evening shirts were
constructed like nightshirts that slipped over the head and were
generally made of white muslin (a loosely woven cotton). While the
choice of white material might seem entirely unremarkable today,
back then the wearing of white shirts, waistcoats and neckcloths
was a subtle indication of a man’s wealth. In order to
maintain a spotless appearance in the dirty conditions of the
country or city these easily-soiled linens would have to be
changed frequently which meant hefty laundering
charges affordableonly by the rich.
English evening shirt, 1808.
Reproduction Regency-era dress shirt.
By 1830 smaller neckcloths and
lower-cut waistcoats exposed more of the formal
shirt's front, then often pleated.
The fronts of evening shirts were pleated and/or frilled, often
asymmetrically. The Whole Art of Dress published in 1830
suggested a prudent way to incorporate linen’s resistance to wear
and yellowing without sacrificing the benefits of cotton:
the wristbands, collars, and fronts are the only parts displayed in
public, it is by no means absolutely requisite . . . to have the
body and sleeves composed of linen. On the contrary, fine
India long cloth [plain cotton cloth], while it saves an immense
expense (one-third the price of linen), is infinitely superior from
the coolness and comfort of its wear.
Collars on these
shirts were tall enough to stand above the elaborate cravats that
swathed the neck during this period and were sometimes
stiffened. At first they were attached to the shirts then in the
1820s the option of detachable collars became available.
The popularity of
lavishly ruffled shirt fronts declined throughout the conservative Victorian era in favor
of delicate pleats or a plain front, the latter option becoming the
most common style by the 1850s. Plain fronts required a thick
bosom to maintain an unrumpled appearance on a shirt that otherwise
fit very loosely. Eyelets began to appear at the same time to
accommodate studs while starched cuffs made cufflinks more
The late Victorian period ushered in the stiff
evening shirt that is still the standard for full dress today. It
became known colloquially as a "boiled shirt" because boiling was
the most effective washing process to keep shirts white and to
remove the copious amount of starch from the garment's four-layer
bosom. These bosoms were made of white piqué or linen, the latter
either plain or pleated, and generally took one or two studs.
Man's evening dress shirt circa 1850s.
Man's evening dress shirt circa 1860s.
white longcloth dress shirt, linen fittings throughout" from
Harrod's. Note open front.
Open-front shirts (aka coat-front shirts) were introduced to
menswear in the 1880s to allow for a tapered waist that was not
possible in shirts that had to be wide enough to slip over the
Shirts that opened in the back were
introduced in the following decade and this style grew in popularity
for dress shirts until it was the predominant choice in the
1930s. They were preferred because their fused bosom would
stay perfectly smooth during wearing unlike open-front versions
where the two halves of the bosom were held together by studs and
were consequently prone to buckling and billowing. (In open-back
models the studs were purely decorative.) The fact that this style
of dress shirt was manufactured into the 1960s attests to its
Collars were still mostly tall and elaborately wrapped in
neckcloths up to the 1850s. By the 1860s such cravats had fallen out
of fashion in favour of the bow tie prompting collars to become
shorter as well as stiffer in order to stand upright on their own. In the
following decade collars began to display folded tips called wings.
Turndown collars were occasionally seen in the 1860s and early '70s.
When the dinner jacket first gained popularity in the 1880s
it was worn with the full-dress shirt and accessories due to its
limited role as an informal replacement for the tailcoat.
As the story goes, detachable
were invented in 1827 by a housewife in Troy, New York who was tired
of trying to remove the “ring-around-the-collar” from her husband’s
shirts. Having a collar that was separate from the shirt was
not only more efficient for laundering but was also more economical
as it allowed the soiled collar to be replaced without having to buy
an entirely new shirt.
by hand and constructed of cotton, paper or heavily starched linen,
its popularity quickly spread to the rest of the world, particularly
among the growing class of office-workers that became known as
“white collar” workers. Detachable collars were the height of
fashion by 1862 when machines were invented to mass produce them by
laminating linen onto thick cardboard stock creating a material
known as linene. Shortly after its invention in 1870 an early
form of plastic called celluloid was interlined with the linen to
create an extremely stiff collar that could be cleaned with simple
soap and water instead of the elaborate starching and pressing
process required for the other materials.
Notably, the very
frugality that endeared this invention to the masses was frowned
upon by polite society who generally maintained a preference
for attached collars on their dress shirts.
Illustrations from 1869 sewing patterns
for upright poke collar and early wing collar.
An 1899 window display featuring dozens of different collar
and cuff models for sale.
Leather collar boxes were popular accessories to store and
protect detachable collars.
Detachable Cuffs and Bosoms
Sleeve cuffs were also
available in detachable celluloid styles but were not as popular on
formal shirts as were their collar counterparts. While the
detachable collar was able to offer variety of styles and a suitability
to different neck lengths, detachable cuffs were simply a way to
reduce laundering costs which was not supposed to be a concern for
Linen "shirt fronts" from 1895 Harrod's
catalogue, sold with or without attached collars.
Circa 1890s ad for celluloid collars, cuffs and shirt
1912 ad for a detachable shirt bosom by another maker
of celluloid products.
A dickey (alternately spelled dicky or dickie) is a type of false
shirt-front that appeared in the 1820s as a permissible shortcut in
the country when fine dressing was impossible. Eventually they
were made of the same celluloid as detachable collars and cuffs for
use with evening shirts, buttoning to the shirt’s collar at the top
and tucking into the waistcoat or cummerbund below. Their
waterproof, wrinkle-free and stain-resistant properties made them
popular with entertainers, musicians and waiters and consequently
disdained by well-dressed gentlemen who viewed them as the
equivalent of a pre-tied bow tie. Their extreme stiffness and
tendency to pop out of place also made them the subject of humor and
As in the previous era, the Edwardian
full-dress shirt featured a stiff bosom of piqué or plain material
and the number of studs ranged from one to three throughout the
period. New to this era were soft pleated dress shirts with French
cuffs which were appropriate only with the dinner jacket, although
some mavericks adopted them for full dress.
By the turn of
the century the most popular collar styles – whether attached or
detachable – were turndown, poke (i.e. upright or "imperial") and
wing. A 1903 “correct dress chart” in The Haberdasher and
Clothier dictated the former style for wear with the informal dinner
jacket and the latter two models for the tailcoat. As the
period progressed the wing collar gradually dominated the other
options. Cuffs, conversely, were always to be attached when worn
with evening dress.
By 1913 a new trend had emerged which
would prove permanent: the material of the full-dress shirt’s bosom,
collar, and cuffs was to match that of the accompanying bow tie and
Early ad by Arrow shirts' parent company for
their Donchester dress shirt.
Full-dress shirt with band collar, American circa1900 (source)
Artist J.C. Leyendecker's ads for
Arrow dress shirts have become iconic.
Vanity Fair advised in 1913 that collars should be
high in the back to be properly exposed and that the band collar
style (left) is less comfortable than "boldwing" (right) or
poke styles, presumably because the former's overlapping
contstricted the throat.
1907 "linen dress front" from British retailer Army & Navy
Beginning at the turn of the century, etiquette guides were
allowing plain or pleated front shirts with turndown or wing collars
to be worn with the informal new dinner jacket. By World War I
these shirts were specifically referred to as soft fronts as in this
excerpt from Marion Hartland's Complete Etiquette:
Gold studs and gold link cuff buttons, or the newer dark enamel
should be used, in shirts of plaits or tucks of various widths.
These softer styles of shirts are now in high favor and are a
sensible and proper innovation. Extremes of styles should be
avoided, and many men of conservative tastes still wear the stiff
plain linen or piqué bosoms.
were significantly relaxed for practical reasons during the First
World War and remained that way after peace returned.
Consequently, full-dress was worn much less frequently and there
were few developments the corresponding stiff-front shirt.
Although the trend of having a shirt bosom, waistcoat and bow tie of matching piqué continued to grow, this was an
expensive perk limited to those who could afford custom tailoring.
Consequently, plain linen bosoms remained very popular throughout
The detachable wing collar had
become the norm by now. The trendsetting Prince of Wales
favored a tall version which necessitated a wide opening and very
broad tabs that were slightly wider than the bow tie.
By 1928 the Prince of Wales had publicly condemned the boiled
shirt of his ancestors and two Men’s Wear surveys from that year
revealed that American men seemed to share the sentiment. The
periodical reported that while most men continued to favor wing
collars and stiff-bosom shirts with their dinner jackets, some of
the younger generation had taken to wearing negligee shirts with
soft attached collars. The magazine’s editors scolded that “This
style mirrors the quintessence of informality, in fact, these men
could hardly adopt any more radical style and still be ‘properly’
Arrow's "Tango" shirt line was offered with "soft and
semi-soft, tucked or pleated bosoms." Cuffs
could be single or French. (1913)
The July 1919 issue of
Vanity Fair recommended this pleated shirt with
turndown collar for a cool and comfortable summer formal
In 1924 Men's Wear suggested a slightly starched
pleated shirt in plain linen with turndown collar as part of
"this most informal evening costume."
Etiquette authors were equally disapproving
and advised their own readers well into the 1930s that the
appropriateness of soft or pleated shirts was strictly limited to
summer evenings and other equally informal occasions. But they
were fighting a losing battle thanks largely to the Prince who regularly
wore a soft-front pleated shirt with attached turndown
collar and French cuffs whenever he donned his equally informal
double-breasted dinner jacket. As a result, Esquire noted in
1937 that the turndown collar had superseded the traditional wing
collar by the mid thirties and was "now virtually standard for
London shirtmakers devised a novel variant that was dressier than
informal soft-front shirts yet more comfortable than the formal
stiff-front option. The resulting marcella shirt was an elegant
compromise consisting of a semi-stiff bosom fashioned out of formal
piqué with a matching turndown collar and cuffs.
"Riviera" model with attached turndown collar with
narrow spread. Right: "Eric" model with
detachable turndown collar. Both with lightweight
bodies, soft pleated bosom, French cuffs and fitted shape. (1934)
An antique marcella dress shirt dating from the 1920s or
'30s. Made in Derry from "Pure Irish Linen".
Although social standards were relaxed once
more following World War Two there was initially little change in
shirts other than the fact that the detachable collar was relegated
almost exclusively to white-tie attire which was now rarely seen.
As for dinner shirts, the 1948 Vogue’s Book of Etiquette listed some
relatively new alternatives: besides the formal stiff-front shirt
with wing collar and the less formal semi-starched pleated model
with stiff fold collar, the postwar man could also choose a
soft-collar shirt either in silk – with plain or pleated bosom – or
in broadcloth. According to the book the latter was “the most
informal and probably the most usual.”
True change in
formal shirt styles did not arrive until the late 1950s and early
‘60s when the fashion clock was turned back to the Regency era.
Paralleling the Jet Age’s increasingly ornate dinner jackets and
evening waistcoats, the stylish formal shirt of the time began
displaying columns of understated ruffles or subtly embroidered lace
either along the placket or across the entire front of the
shirt. After the new style appeared on fashion-forward celebrities
at the 1959 Academy Awards the patterns and effects became
increasingly elaborate. Other options for shirt bosoms included an
ever wider variety of pleats and tucks, frequently with fly fronts
that did not require any studs.
The contemporary innovation
in white-tie shirts was pragmatic rather than theatric: for the
first time the collar became attached to the shirt. A 1965 ad
proudly described Lion of Troy’s version as “the wonderful wing
collar shirt that can be worn in complete comfort because the collar
is attached and it buttons up the front. Wear it with white tie as
usual, or with black tie for a fresh fashion flavor.”
1957 Esquire pictorial depicting one of the very
first ruffled formal shirts.
This 1961 ad paired ruffled shirts with equally trendy
Lion of Troy's version of the attached-collar full-dress
Thus the groundwork was set for a complete revolution in the
age-old traditions of formal wear. (For more on that story,
see The Black Tie Blog.)