The classic white shirt is an iconic part of history dating back more than a thousand years. When you wear this modern day versatile wardrobe staple it tells a story about you. But where did it all begin?
The history of this classic garment is hard to unpick but while once an undergarment made from muslin, wool, flax linen, cotton and silk, it evolved to become a statement of wealth with moments of scandal along the way.
The Medieval chemise
The chemise, or smock, is said to have started in Europe around the 10th century and was worn loose as an undergarment by both men and women, yet little is known how this medieval must-have garment began.
By the 15th century the white chemise was part of custom Europe due to an intensification of cloth manufacture in France and Italy. It is likely however, that these first iterations made from handwoven cloth achieved no where near the softness of a dress shirt today.
Source of scandal
Looking around today it’s hard to believe that anything akin to the modern white dress shirt could have once caused a scandal. But in 1783, Marie Antoinette, patron of artist Madame Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, appeared on canvas painted by the artist wearing what is considered her muslin chemise undergarment, and all of society were shocked.
White collar “stiffs”
A century later as the industrial era was in full swing, while still considered an undergarment of sorts, these carefully handmade white shirts emerged as a statement of wealth worn by the elite and upper middle classes. This visible status symbol declared that its wearer had no fear of its crisp white fabric being sullied by oil, grease, dirt or coal from a hard day’s graft in the industry.
It also signified that a person in a white shirt had the means to have the garment washed, which 200 years ago was not without significant effort.
This was when the term ‘white collar’ emerged denoting social distinction based on how someone earned their wage. It’s said that the wording came from disgruntled working class men who resented the “white collar stiffs”, and was later followed by the term, ‘blue collar’ for working class people.
To look “down one’s nose”
As if the white shirt was not enough distinction of rank, during the Victorian era this emblem of wealth, still worn as an undergarment, was hidden under waist coats, jackets and coats.
Detachable collar and cuffs worn by many at the time however adorned the shirt as it slowly transitioned to the outerwear we know today. Quickly, the white shirt with its visible accessories became a symbol of masculinity, respectability and power.
The stiff, starched collars ensured its wearer held their head high, which separated them from clerical workers who were required to look right down in their roles, and therefore wore only utilitarian collarless shirts.
The stiffness of the detachable shirt collar meant the high collar-wearing elite couldn’t bend their heads downwards, so instead skimmed the tip of their nose or “looked down their nose” at others.
The 20th century
Women were not without their own white shirt evolution wearing white blouses as part of riding costumes in the 18th century that evolved into the lace and ruffle adorned shirtwaists blouses and puffed-sleeve blouses popular in the late Victorian era. By the start of the 20th century, the white blouse became a wardrobe staple of the middle classes throughout the austere Edwardian era.
By the mid-20th century, women started adopting the popular “masculine” style garment. The mass-manufactured white shirt worn by men had exploded in terms of textiles, patterns and prints, polka dots and stripes, rayon, flannel and linen. And women wanted in.
While for men, the white shirt was compulsory professional office wear, women had to abide by other rules and notions of femininity. Screen stars Ava Gardner, Lauen Bacall, Katherine Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Twiggy and Diane Keaton bucked the trend and immortalised the white shirt trend for women.
Fast-forward to today, the white shirt is both legacy and normality, whether we wear ours with a nod to tradition or with individual modern style, we are buttoning into a rich slice of history that started a thousand years ago.
Shop the Nicholas Jermyn Essentials collection shirts:
Men's Fine Herringbone - Slim Fit - Double Cuff
Men's Royal Oxford - Slim Fit - Double Cuff
Men's Surrey Twill - Slim Fit - Single Cuff
Women's Luxury Herringbone - Single Cuff
Women's Mendel Plain - Single Cuff