The History of the Shirt–from First Dynasty Egypt to Today

The Shirt

Shirts have existed for thousands of years. One of the world’s oldest preserved garments is a shirt found in a First Dynasty Egyptian tomb at Tarkan, dating from five thousand years ago. And judging from the garment’s degree of sophistication, with its elaborately pleated shoulders to allow for movement, and its form-fitting silhouette, it is clear that the ancient shirt was the result of centuries of design evolution, not the first shirt ever made—after all, it is highly unlikely that man went from animal skins to intricately pleated, fitted shirts of fine linen in one fell swoop.

For much of the history of the shirt, it was used as an undergarment to protect regular garments, such as jackets, from perspiration and body soilure. Shirts were also used as sleepwear. They were collarless and cuffless and, for the most part, pulled on over the head since they did not feature buttoned fronts. They were either white or made of undyed fabric, usually linen, cotton, or silk. In those days, glimpsing a man’s shirt was the equivalent of seeing his briefs today.

By the 12th century, the shirt had emerged from underneath other garments to become a full-fledged item of apparel in its own right. Collars and cuffs—sometimes detachable—of different prominence and proportions were added as fashions changed through the decades and centuries. Traditionally a simple garment, in the middle of the 19th century, the shirt became more tailored to complement the shape of the male torso. The first buttoned-up-the-front shirt was registered by Brown, Davies & Co., as early as 1871, but it was only after World War I that the shirt as it is known today became widely popular. In the 1930s, the shirt with a fixed collar became standard, remaining so to this day.

To a large degree, the “casualization” of the shirt was inspired by the short-sleeved, colorful Aloha shirts created by Waikiki-based Chinese merchant Ellery Chun during the 1930s. By the 1950s, short-sleeve shirts—once inconceivable on grounds of immodesty—had become popular, as well as shirts in colors other than stark white, the Garibaldi “Redshirts” of 1843 in Uruguay and 1860 in Italy notwithstanding. It was also in the 1950s that manufacturers started producing shirts in synthetic fabrics such as nylon.

Chest pockets on shirts is a recent invention: As suit vests (also called “waistcoats”) became less popular with the rise of temperature-controlled professional offices, shirts in the 1960s started featuring chest pockets, typically on the left side.

Long gone is the day when no decent man would be seen in public with his torso covered with only a shirt. Today, a shirt is accepted as an outermost garment everywhere except in venues where jackets are required. And in many countries, a shirt with a tie (without a jacket) is considered business attire.

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