Editor's note: the term “dress shirt" has a different meaning on each side of the Atlantic. Because we are American - F#@k yeah! - we are using the term in the American sense
Let's get one thing clear - The history of men's shirts is not exactly crystal clear. It's filled with language like “may have been" and “sometime around this year." It's also filled with colorful characters and interesting reflections on each culture and country.
It's been a long and historic journey for the ubiquitous button-up of today. Much like food, men's dress shirts have become a snapshot of a bunch of different factors - economic conditions, culture, class, and social identity - at a fixed point in history. Here's how that button-down shirt you're wearing today, came to be.
The Middle Ages
And you thought nothing happened during this period except dungeon torture, crusades, and disease? Think again my friend. The beginnings of the men's white dress shirt were here at the turn of the 10th century. During the Norman era in Britain, men wore white shirts that were loose and utilitarian in nature called a chemise or smock. Bet you never thought you'd hear that term from kindergarten painting class again...
The 1700s - 1900s
Fast forward a few hundred years. This is where the white dress shirt that we know today really began to take form. One dude in particular is recognized as making the white dress shirt into a trend. His name was Beau Brummel. He wore “meticulous white linen shirts" with a signature knotted cravat (that frilly thing pictured above). He claimed he took five hours a day to dress, and recommended that boots be polished with champagne. Pretty standard stuff.
Anyway, until the end of the 19th century, the white formal shirt was a symbol of wealth and
class distinction. Only a person of substantial prosperity could afford to have their shirts washed frequently and to own enough of them to wear. The collars were generally detachable and could be quite tall if the guy was from the upper class.
As the American economy thrived during the industrial revolution, business men typically wore suits and white shirts while laborers wore more sturdy, colored shirts (the color hid the dirt). This is where we get the terms “white collar" and “blue collar." As manufacturing became more sophisticated in the early 1900s and laundry became more accessible, attached collars began to be more widely used. Men also began to have more colors and shirt patterns available to them. Polka dots and stripes were introduced as fancy new options.
From the 1930s on, fabric and design options exploded. Flannel, cotton, rayon, and tons of prints and styles were introduced and the modern variation of the men's button-up shirt was born. Different cuts and styles have come and gone since, including, but not limited to, the power white shirt, increasing and decreasing collar heights and widths, and the Aloha shirt.
So there you have it. The next time you look at a button-down shirt out in the wild, you can pause to make an interesting historical connection and appreciate the subtlety. Maybe make a comment to someone nearby about Beau Brummel and his love of boot champagne. Then, and only then, do we give you full license to forget this entire history lesson and dismiss the shirt as just another boring button-down.