Why shirts have collars

Samuel Windsor's Long Sleeve Linen Shirt in Blue Melange

Collars have a long and interesting history
Image: Samuel Windsor’s Long Sleeve Linen Shirt in Blue Melange

The humble shirt collar has come a long way since the days of the bard, when ruffs were the size of dinner plates. It’s a fascinating story – a tale of enlightenment, the industrial revolution, cutting edge science, and ever-changing fashions. Here we investigate the men’s collar – everything you need to know about something you’ve probably never even thought about.

The rise of the ruff

portrait of a man in a ruff

Ruffs became a symbol of wealth in the 1500s
Image: Ysbrand Cosijn

The ruff – that piece of pleated fabric which frames the face of its wearer in such a way that it looks uncomfortably like a severed head on a plate, is a 16th century invention which grew out of the “ruffles” featured on period shirts and chemises – the gathered folds of garments tied around the neck.

As time went on, advances in the manufacture of starch brought a new-fangled stiffness to naturally soft linen, and the trend for ruffs began to grow. The utter impracticality of wearing a board-stiff doily around your neck, plus the cost of the luxurious lace, meant this early collar soon became a coveted status symbol.

Not everyone was a fan, however. The Puritan celeb of the day, Phillip Stubbes, was appalled. In 1583, he wrote:

Great monsterous ruffes…they stand a full quarter of a yarde from their necks…they goe flip flap in the winde, like rags flying abroad.

His conclusion: “The devil, as he in the fulnes of his malice, first invented these great ruffes.

The enlightened cravat

English dandy George Bryan Brummell (1778 -1840), known as Beau Brummell.(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

George “Beau” Brummell popularised cravats
Image: (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) via Wikimedia Commons

As the 16th century gave way to the 17th, people began to think twice about wearing a ruff, to the point where nobody would claim the dubious credit for having invented it in the first place. The English called it the “French fashion” while, on the other side of the channel, they referred to it as the “English monster.”

Gradually, cravats began to replace ruffs, and when the enlightenment struck – that revolution in science and logic which gave us luminaries like Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Voltaire and Smith – we did away with extensive frilliness about the neck. Instead the beginnings of a collar we’d recognise today began to emerge.

Early to mid 19th century fashionista, George “Beau” Brummell, also played a part in popularising menswear with simpler, cleaner lines and more sober colours than the extravagantly silly costumes of earlier days. He was also a proponent of full-body washing – something that made his peers view him as being somewhat eccentric.

Detachable collars

A Grafton starched-stiff detachable wing collar.

Detachable collars meant that shirts needn’t be painstakingly washed every day
Image: Charlie Huang via WikiMedia Commons

In the days before washing machines, and before modern consumer society, most men didn’t own a shirt for every day of the week, and it wasn’t practical for wives to spend all day scrubbing their husband’s dirty shirt so that he could have a fresh one each morning.

By 1827, an American lady had had enough. Her husband, a blacksmith, liked a snowy white shirt, but unfortunately, though his waistcoat protected his body from the heat and smoke of his coke-fired forge, by the end of the day, his collar was sweat-stained and black.

The solution? Unpick the collar and wash it separately. Detachable collars and cuffs were late 19th and early 20th century labour-saving devices and, because they were interchangeable, styles and variety multiplied – from your Eton collar to the imposing Beaufort – the choice was yours.

Celluloid collar stiffeners

The late 19th century also saw the invention of the first plastics. One of them – celluloid, as well as proving ideal for making camera film, spectacle frames, combs and other knick knacks, also proved an ideal stiffening material for the collars of the day, which could be a choking four inches wide.

While celluloid is good at retaining its shape, it did come with a couple of major disadvantages. First there was the fact that it doesn’t stretch – not a great quality in a collar. Some gentlemen, after liberal libations, fell asleep in their chairs, never to awake, the rigid collar having cut off the supply of blood to the brain, killing them stone dead.

The other issue with celluloid is that it’s extremely flammable and doesn’t mix well with cigar and pipe embers which could cause it to go up in flames. Happily, as the 19th century faded into the 20th, softer collars came into fashion and, with the advent of the washing machine, the detachable collar was no more.

Modern necklines

Samuel Windsor's Long Sleeve Weekend Shirt in Navy Gingham

Button down collars were made popular by American GIs
Image: Samuel Windsor’s Long Sleeve Weekend Shirt in Navy Gingham

Which brings us to the present day when our collars are the best they’ve ever been – modern, comfortable and tasteful, but retaining a nod to the past. Take your button down Oxford shirt – that collar was invented by polo players who, tired of their collars flapping in the wind, decided to button them down.

Ever wondered why button-down is such a preppy look? In the aftermath of the Second World War, large numbers of demobilised American GIs hit the university campuses. They brought with them their grown up clothes and army penchant for smartness, and they mixed with dressed down students. The combination of the two – smart casual.

Your casual polo shirt? Despite its horsey associations, it was tennis ace, Jean René Lacoste who came up with the popular soft-collared polo tops we know and love today. Fed up with the stiff sportswear of his day, he designed the Lacoste shirt for the 1926 US Open tennis tournament.

Your choice of shirt and collar style is a highly personal one – these days it’s less about class distinction or employment type – and more about finding the style that best complements your face shape. Cutaway, spread, or forward point – the decision is yours. What’s your favourite collar style? Drop us a line and let us know.

Posted in Men's style guides.

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