The Modernity of the Victorian Era White Dress Shirt

White linen dress shirt (FRC2016.11.002), c. 1840-1860 and modern dress shirt, (illustration by author)

There are only a few fashion items that can be considered genuinely iconic. The term is usually reserved for garments that have stood the test of time—such as the little black dress, the blue jeans, or the trench coat—and continue to be a staple in today’s wardrobes. The same can be said for the white dress shirt, particularly when it comes to menswear. Over the last century, it has become a closet essential in men’s wardrobes, with publications like GQ affirming that “Every guy needs a stable of white dress shirts” (Woolf), while many designer labels vie for their place in the market despite very few variations between the styles. Although the brand Brooks Brothers is widely credited (Antonelli, Fisher 185; Sims 142) for the invention of the modern button-down shirt, the popularity of the garment can be traced back to the early Victorian era when the white dress shirt first adopted the streamlined look. The shirt became an “important symbol of wealth and class distinction and a powerful emblem of sobriety and uniformity for men” (Brough 2). The tailored shirt from the mid-nineteenth century can be considered an early prototype or precursor to the now classic design. The white linen dress shirt (FRC2016.11.002) from the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection is an excellent example of a garment that embodies this theory.

White linen dress shirt (FRC2016.11.002), c. 1840-1860, Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (image by author)

Using the Checklist for Observation from The Dress Detective (Mida and Kim 216), I carefully analysed and measured the garment. I then illustrated it as an attempt to capture its construction beyond the photograph. For comparison purposes, I also illustrated a contemporary slim-fit dress shirt. Upon careful inspection, the two garments bear a significant physical resemblance that is perhaps not apparent during the initial observation.

Dated 1840-1860, by the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection curator, upon first glance, the garment is a far cry from today’s modern button-down shirt. It seems unnecessarily voluminous and cumbersome for a garment that was meant to be worn underneath something else. For example, its length from shoulder to hem measures at an astounding forty-two inches, which would sit at mid-thigh on an average height male. When compared to its contemporary version, which averages at around thirty inches in length, it reads more like a sleep shirt or a chemise rather than something that is commonly tucked into trousers. However, the rest of its proportions are comparable: the width is a tad broader than the modern slim-fit shirt while the sleeves are approximately the same length. This is not uncommon for the era.

White linen dress shirt (FRC2016.11.002), c. 1840-1860 and modern dress shirt, detail (image by author)

According to Brough, between the 1840s and 1870s, the shirt became increasingly slimmer in popular fashion due to the popularity of fitted suits and the developments in tailoring (2). Most unusually, the sleeves have a rather large seven and a half inch gusset at the armpits, giving them a dolman-style shape. The small rounded collar is made to fit a fifteen-inch neck width and is secured in the front by a single plastic button that was most likely a twentieth-century replacement for the original mother of pearl. Similar dress shirts featured in Dressed for a Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900 show similar style collars worn both turned up and down, most often with a necktie underneath. Unlike the modern Oxford, the two collar ends do not meet in the centre.

The garment’s front body is made out of a single piece of fabric, with a ten-inch-long placket with embroidered owner’s initials, F.M. and a button enclosure in the middle. The shirt’s back body is also made from a single piece of fabric, and unlike the modern shirt, it doesn’t feature a yoke at the rear shoulder. Instead, two symmetrical panels are placed as shoulder reinforcement, quite similar to a Western-style shirt. The only decorative element, aside from the embroidered initials, is the thin ribbon finishing at the edge of the cuffs, which are smaller in size than on contemporary shirts. The cuffs’ decorative elements suggest that they were meant to peek out of the overcoat sleeve.

White linen dress shirt (FRC2016.11.002), c. 1840-1860 and modern dress shirt, detail (image by author)

The garment’s panels are cut with straight lines, without the usual curve at the armhole and the hemline. This cutting technique perhaps helps date the shirt closer to 1840 than 1860, since Cunnington and Willett trace the beginning of a curved hemline to 1853 in The History of Underclothes (140). The heavy use of pleating and ruching to compensate for lack of curvatures in the pattern is exemplary of garment construction before it was factory streamlined later in the nineteenth century.

Tintype, 1852-55, National Museum of American History (59.229) (Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. Kent State University Press, 1995., p.142.)

The garment was a gift from Kevin Manuel to Ryerson Fashion Research Collection, and nothing is known of its origin. The owner, F.M, remains a mysterious figure. Since the shirt is made of high-quality linen, it perhaps suggests that the owner was someone that belonged to the middle class. However, the relaxed collar suggests that the shirt was worn in a more casual, working-class manner. Still, a white shirt was a wardrobe standard for men of all classes. According to Brough, “The white formal shirt, until the end of the nineteenth century, was a significant symbol of wealth and class distinction, as only a person of substantial prosperity could afford to have their shirts washed frequently and to own enough of them to wear” (3). During the visit to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection, curator Ingrid Mida and professor Alison Matthews David suggested that the embroidered initials were placed for laundering purposes, which was a necessity for many since most people didn’t have running water at the time. Upon my remark on the unusual length of the garment, Mida and David advised that the shirt might have doubled as an undergarment since the idea of underwear had not yet been popularised. Although its collar and part of the chest was meant to be worn visible in accordance with the popular fashion of the time.

Men’s walking costume and sports costume, Gazette of Fashion, 1861 (Laver, James. Fashions and Fashion Plates 1800-1900. London and New York: The King Penguin Books. 1943. Plate 12.)

Cunnington and Willett consider the white shirt as an undergarment until the First World War, when it became fashionable to wear on its own (15). However, by the early nineteenth century, the garment, which had previously been relegated as an undergarment, began to peek out more and more, thanks to the era’s trendsetter, George Bryan “Beau” Brummell (Brough 2) and his elaborate upturned collars and ruffles. Lord Byron is also said to have popularised the modern shirt collar by laying them flat against the collarbone rather than upright as it was worn at the time (Antonelli, Fisher 183). By mid-century, the shirt’s features have become less decorative as those features were “reviled for being non-masculine” (Brough 3).

The concern with masculinity was of great importance to the men of the Victorian era. As fashion became thought of as a feminine interest, men’s clothing became more utilitarian. (Breward 171).  According to both Breward (171) and Brough (3), male dress codes began to prioritise uniformity over individualism. Brough goes as far to suggest that the “pure white colour fulfilled masculine ideals of resolute austerity and the shirt, through its constancy, epitomised conformity and dependability” (3). He goes to explain that later in the century, the terms “white collar” and “blue collar” began to emerge (4), placing additional symbolism on the garment and its social status.

Those same connotations are still very much present today. The contemporary white button down shirt is still considered to be formal dress despite its ubiquity, and it is still regarded as part of the daily middle-class uniform. Class connotation aside, the austere nature of the Victorian garment can be considered on the cusp of modern, adhering to the idea that “less is more” over half a century before architect Adolf Loos gave his Ornament and Crime lecture with the now-infamous quote. Apart from the yoke and the full-length placket, all the parts of the modern shirt design are in place. Regarding Kopytoff’s idea of object biography (65), a biography of a white dress shirt can be looked as an anthology, from undergarment to a style icon.

As for F.M’s biography, it is open to interpretation. His fifteen-inch neck circumference suggests that he was he was a slim individual. We can conclude that he did not do his own laundry, nor it was done within his household. Little wear and tear perhaps indicate that F.M had many shirts in daily rotation. Taking into consideration Brough and Breward’s findings on the Victorian gentleman, F.M. was maybe someone who appreciated restraint when it came to dressing, someone who did not love to stand out from the crowd. And it is my interpretation that he inclined towards modernity, that his shirt represented more than merely a garment, but a movement.

Works Cited

Antonelli, Paola, Fisher, Michelle Millar. ITEMS: Is Fashion Modern? Museum of Modern Art, 2017. p. 83-84.

Breward, Christopher. The Culture of Fashion. Manchester University Press, 1995. pp.145-180.

Brough, Dean. “The classic white formal shirt: a powerful emblem of social change.” In 15th Annual IFFTI Conference: The Business & Marketing of Icons, April 2-6, 2013, Los Angeles, California, USA.

Cunnington, P. and C. Willett. The History of Underclothes. London: Dover Publications. 1992.

David, Alison Matthews. Personal Interview. 23 January 2018.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things, 1986, pp. 64–92.

Laver, James. Fashions and Fashion Plates 1800-1900. London and New York: The King Penguin Books. 1943.

Mida, Ingrid. Personal Interview. 23 January 2018.

Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2015. Retrieved from http://eprints.qut.edu.au/59300/

Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. Kent State University Press, 1995.

Sims, Josh. Icons of Men’s Style. Laurence King Publishing, 2011.

Woolf, Jake. “The Only Seven White Dress Shirts You Need to Know About.” GQ. 10 April, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.gq.com/gallery/the-only-eight-white-dress-shirts-you-need-to-know

About Anya.Georgijevic