A shirt is a garment worn on the upper part of the body, usually consisting of a buttoned front, a collar, and long or short sleeves. Possibly the most important item in the male wardrobe after the suit, the shirt has always been considered the symbol of a gentleman. The finest shirts are single-stitched, pleated at the cuff, and feature a split shoulder yoke to allow for different heights of each shoulder.
Shirts appeared first in European dress in the seventeenth century as a kind of underwear, designed to protect expensive waistcoats and frock coats from sweat and soil. By the early eighteenth century, shirts had assumed importance as garments in their own right. The emphasis placed by Beau Brummel and other dandies on wearing clean, perfectly styled linen brought the shirt into increased prominence as an essential male garment. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, only those considered to be gentlemen could afford to wear white shirts, as only they had the means to buy, change, and wash them regularly. Because shirts soiled so easily, men involved in manual labor found it completely impractical to wear them. The development of improved laundry techniques after the mid-nineteenth century expanded the market for shirts, but they remained emblematic of upper-class, or at least "white-collar" middle-class men.
At first, shirts were put on by being pulled over the head. Shirts that opened all the way down the front were unknown before 1871, when Brown, Davis & Co. of Aldermanbury registered the first "coat style" of shirt. Striped shirts became fashionable in the late nineteenth century, but some viewed them with the suspicion that the color was hiding dirt.
In the early twenty-first century, a similar style of shirt to those originally produced by Brown, Davis & Co. is available in either plain or placket front. The placket is used to give the shirt extra strength and consists of an extra fold of fabric where the shirt is buttoned. Other essential requirements for a shirt of the highest quality include gussets for reinforcement between the breast and the back of the shirt, mother-of-pearl buttons, and removable collar bones (preferably made from brass) to prevent the collar tips from curling upwards. On the other hand, a good shirt will never feature a breast pocket as these only appeared much later with the demise of the waistcoat. Use of a shirt breast pocket to carry pens, cigarettes, and other paraphernalia can spoil the lines of the shirt. By the turn of the twentieth century, the traditional stand-up collar was supplanted by the turndown collar— a development that coincided with the demise of the cravat in favor of the necktie. Although there are as many as twenty different styles of collar (both attached or detachable), the most formal remains the broad turndown. With the rise of the Windsor tie knot (invented in the 1920s, and revived periodically), the cutaway collar has become the collar of choice for younger shirt wearers.
Although the word "shirt" has been expanded to include a number of men's and women's garments, with dress shirt, sports shirt, sweatshirt, T-shirt, and shirtwaist counted among them, a plain white shirt cut from the softest sea-island cotton is a sartorial must for any man. The tailored shirtwaister or shirtwaist blouse with starched and coat-style front is the women's version that evolved from a man's shirt, beginning in the late nineteenth century and enjoying great popularity beginning in the 1930s. Many formerly exclusively male shirt styles have been adopted essentially unchanged for women's wear in the late twentieth century.
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