Chapter 4: History of the White Shirt

Chapter 4: History of the White Shirt

Everyone needs a great WHITE shirt.

And more than one in my opinion! 

If you have a collared “dress” shirt that buttons down the front, it is very likely white - the most common color (if white is a color.) But these shirts weren’t always worn the way we wear them now!

Historically speaking…

  • Shirts were men’s undergarments - a simple pullover layer in natural “white” fabric that was not visible. The tails of the shirts acted as drawers or boxers for men (Meanwhile, women continued to be with laced up into their under garments and more structured clothing*)
  • Until the 1900’s, it was considered improper to see the shirts. Mens shirts were only visible when worn by the lower class which revealed dirt more easily and the nature of the work
  • Cotton was dominant - durable and comfortable, and practical because of its sweat-absorbing ability
  • The clean white collar was a sign of wealth and means. In the 1820’s, detachable collars and cuffs appeared as an alternative to washing the entire shirt. They were laced or pinned to the shirts until buttons became more common.
  • Generations later, white dress shirts with collars were worn with a tie or bow tie, and in work and more formal settings, always under a jacket.

Nowadays, the white shirt plays a much more flexible role in our wardrobes. Your clothing and style communicate so much to people you meet – how you dress and what you wear significantly shapes first impressions. The fit, fabric, and weaves send subtle and nonverbal messages that speak volumes about us, our gender, socioeconomic status, and intentions. But no matter what message you are trying to send, white shirts are appropriate for almost any occasion, albeit not always easy to keep clean! 

White shirts may seem ubiquitous but as I search for preloved shirts to upcycle, white shirts in good shape are far and few between. So it is all the more exciting when I hit the jackpot and get to zhuzh** these versatile pieces and extend their lives!




*Maybe you have noticed women’s shirts button right over left and men’s left over right. That is a leftover practice from when women were dressed by servants and it was easier for the (mostly) right handed servants to button up a blouse right over left.

**This word is in the dictionary by the way

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